Press Box

Donahue Never Had a Chance

Don’t blame Phil or MSNBC for his failure. Blame the cable audience.

As MSNBC programmers tuck talk-show host Phil Donahue in for his dirt nap, observers are blaming the cancellation of his show on:

1) MSNBC—the third-rated cable network couldn’t attract an audience for the Second Coming;
2) Phil’s advanced age—the MSNBC audience is cable news’ youngest, and he’s 67;
3) the prohibitive expense of producing a program with a studio audience.

Donahue had exited from the daily TV grind once before, in 1996, prompting some to argue that he’d misplaced his talk-show mojo, that his soft-spokenness just wasn’t made for these times, or that his formula was fine for housewives in the afternoon but not for the politically committed tuning in at 8 p.m. And lefty media critics might have you believe that MSNBC yanked Donahue, the only liberal/lefty cable-show host, to further right-wingify the already winged-out news channels.

I’d agree with all of the above observations (except the right-wingification theory). But what really felled Phil was the cable-news audience. According to a Pew Research Center poll from last year, the political views of the folks who regularly watch cable news networks skew hard to the right, making it difficult for liberals or lefties to find purchase except as punching bags on shows such as Hannity & Colmes, Buchanan and Press, and to a lesser degree, Crossfire. First and foremost, Phil failed because the plurality of regular cable viewers will not watch a lefty commentator who doesn’t have a right-wing co-pilot.

The Pew poll found that 46.4 percent of regular Fox News Channel viewers self-identified to the pollsters as “conservative” or “very conservative,” and only 17.7 percent self-identified as “liberal” or “very liberal,” which shouldn’t come as a surprise to anybody who’s viewed Fox. But the regular CNN watcher tilts right in almost the same proportions: 39.7 percent right versus 16.1 percent left. Similarly, at MSNBC, 40.4 percent of regular viewers self-identify on the right and only 15.8 percent on the left. (For those keeping score at home, here are the percentages of moderate viewers: Fox, 31.7; CNN, 37.7; and MSNBC, 37.9. Don’t know/refused to answer accounted for 6.5 percent.)

Given that the poll’s margin of error is the standard plus or minus 3 percentage points, the political profile of regular Fox viewers is practically indistinguishable from regular CNN or MSNBC viewers. For all we know, the core viewership of cable news could be the same folks surfing from network to network, and damn few of them are liberals. “If Donahue was hired to draw liberals, that’s a mighty small pool” from which to draw, writes Pew editor Carroll Doherty in e-mail.

Donahue might blame his rotten ratings on MSNBC’s inferior reach, 73 million households versus CNN’s 85.6 million and Fox’s 77.2 million, according to December 2001 numbers. But that doesn’t account for the gap between Donahue’s average audience over the last month of 439,000 and Bill O’Reilly’s 2.7 million.

(The demographics of regular cable watchers may have also undone Donahue. His syndicated program was phenomenally popular with women. But more men than women watch cable networks, Carroll Doherty continues. “Especially CNN: 30 percent of men watch regularly vs. 21 percent of women. Not as big a gap at Fox, surprisingly, 23 percent men/21 percent women; MSNBC was 18 percent men regularly/12 percent women. Donahue had the rep of appealing to women, so again, he was facing a tough road.”)

Which returns us to the original thesis: The conservative cable audience clicked right by him. If I’m right, Donahue wouldn’t have fared much better on broadcast than cable. Regular evening-news viewers self-identify as conservatives, moderates, and liberals in numbers very close to those of cable network viewers (CBS: 40.7/37.1/12.9; NBC: 43.2/33.5/15.5; ABC: 41.9/36.7/15.8). According to Pew, “very conservative” TV watchers say they spend an average of 31 minutes watching TV news (broadcast and cable) compared with 20 minutes by the “very liberal.” (Interesting side note: Pew found that the “very liberal” spend more time with newspapers than do the “very conservative,” but the “very conservative” are the heaviest consumers—measured in time—of all news media.)

An enterprising broadcast news director covetous of higher ratings might well think about slanting his news to the right—I mean, adopt a Murdochesque “We report, you decide” editorial policy!—to harvest the committed conservative TV audience. Which, as it turns out, is precisely what MSNBC is doing. (Disclosure: MSNBC is co-owned by Slate’s parent company, Microsoft.) In mid-February, MSNBC hired conservative radio host Michael Savage to do a one-hour Saturday show and yesterday recruited conservative/libertarian/eclectic populist Jesse Ventura, a former radio host himself, to anchor a daily show.

Which came first, the conservative TV audience or conservative TV programming? I surmise the conservative TV audience came first because 1) older folks watch TV news more often than younger folks, according to the Pew poll, and 2) people tend to become more conservative as they age. The TV news demographic invites all sorts of new questions about media bias. Might TV news tilt in favor of, say, prescription benefits for senior citizens because the producers know many of their viewers are codgers? Indeed, advertisers target TV news for precisely that reason, hawking Metamucil, cholesterol drugs, denture adhesives, and arthritis remedies in countless commercials.

Phil Donahue’s cable crackup bodes ill for the 14-hour-a-day, commercial liberal radio network proposed by Chicago venture capitalists. The talk-radio audience numbers look a lot like the TV numbers: 46.2 percent conservative; 31.2 percent moderate; 18.2 percent liberal; 4.5 percent don’t know/refused. To build a Rush Limbaugh-sized audience, lib-radio will have to do something a talented, respected, and well-known liberal TV host couldn’t: Capture the tiny, existing liberal audience of 18.2 percent and make it grow. Can comedian Al Franken do that?

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If you’re a self-identified liberal, my lines are open at pressbox@hotmail.com. Conservatives: Call MSNBC and see if they’ll give you your own daily program. Moderates: To the back of the line.