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Without Trump, cable news execs worried about ratings decline

CNN and MSNBC thrived on scandal during the Trump presdiency. Now that he's almost gone, executives are worried about the future of cable news.

CNN and MSNBC thrived on scandal during the Trump presdiency. Now that he's almost gone, executives are worried about the future of cable news.

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Something happened last week that hasn’t occurred in nearly 20 years: CNN beat the Fox News Channel.

For the first time since the September 11, 2001 terror attack, CNN logged overall higher ratings against the dominant cable news king, besting the Murdoch-owned news channel with 1.73 million viewers between November 4 and December 6 compared to Fox News Channel’s 1.56 million viewers.

There was a lot of reason to celebrate at CNN and rival news channel MSNBC: Its post-mortem coverage of the 2020 presidential election drew more eyeballs to the screen, and both provided up-to-the-minute coverage of all the drama that ensued after the polls closed on November 3. There was also the fact that the Fox News Channel, which chose to cover the election and its aftermath with a more-nuanced approached (going so far as to call out the Trump administration’s blatantly-false allegations of election fraud), was losing viewers to the more-extreme Newsmax and One America News, both of which were happy to cater to the far right-wing viewpoints of an ultra-conservative audience (even if it did mean repeating the wild conspiracy theories of the Trump administration in the weeks after the election in a way that suggested those falsehoods were fact).

But if there was any celebrating at CNN or MSNBC, it was quick-lived: For more than four years, Donald Trump gave both networks plenty of fodder for dramatic news reports and debate panels that masqueraded as hard-hitting journalism. In January, that all comes to an end (presumably, anyway — unless Joe Biden’s administration can match the zaniness of the last four years, but that’s doubtful). What will they do then?

Those answers are hard to come by, and executives are starting to worry their time is up. That’s the tone of a New York Times article published Monday in which the newspaper said executives at both networks “know that the viewers who abhorred President Trump may not longer need their nightly therapy sessions with Rachel Maddow or Don Lemon.”

That’s a weird way of putting it. Therapy sessions? Aren’t cable news networks supposed to produce journalism? Still, it perfectly encapsulates how cable news consumers have consumed what CNN and MSNBC have been willing to offer over the last four years: Confirmation that they weren’t alone in thinking the world was going crazy and could end at a moment’s notice.

There’s still some madness in the world — the coronavirus health pandemic, anyone? — but arguably less so than what’s been experienced in the United States over the last four years. Without the ability to direct their staff toward the next anticipated crisis, what are cable news executives supposed to do next year?

As it turns out, many of them may simply leave.

The Times reported CNN’s top executive Jeff Zucker is strongly considering an exit from the network he’s led over the last several years. The newspaper isn’t the first to report Zucker’s possible departure — it’s only the most recent to put it in print. And the story contained more details about developing tensions between Zucker and his boss, AT&T WarnerMedia chief Jason Kilar

In news media reporters, including an interview with the Times, Kilar has not shied from heaping praises on Zucker — the executive who, at the start of his tenure, oversaw months-long coverage of the mysterious disappearance of a Malaysian jetliner, a plane that one of his prominent news anchors suggested might have been swallowed by a black hole. Kilar wants Zucker to stay, but based on news reports, the CNN executive isn’t feeling the love. His departure is more likely than not.

A change of executive leadership has already taken place at MSNBC where the network’s parent company NBC Universal, a subsidiary of Comcast, recently promoted Rashida Jones to oversee the cable news channel’s post-Trump existence. As the Times put it, Jones will have to figure out how the channel “should reconstitute itself in a Biden era.”

Some long-time news producers are already forecasting a ratings slide come January, the Times said. But Jones has what it takes to lead the channel into the future: Her tenure as a hard-news journalist suggests she could transform MSNBC from a political-focused channel into one that offers rolling updates on breaking news situations throughout the world, leveraging NBC’s deep portfolio of domestic and global journalists. In the era of Twitter, a breaking news-focused cable news channel is just what the industry needs, and no one is better to capitalize on that trend than Jones.

In some ways, MSNBC is already ahead of CNN in figuring out what life will look like after Donald Trump’s presidency. MSNBC has placed its confidence in a news executive with a long tenure at the network. CNN may soon be on the hunt for a newsroom leader of its own.

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About the Author:

Matthew Keys

Matthew Keys is the publisher of The Desk and reports on the business and policy matters involving the broadcast television, streaming video and radio industries. He previously worked for Thomson Reuters, Disney-ABC, Tribune Broadcasting and McNaughton Newspapers. Matthew is based in Northern California, has won numerous awards in the field of journalism, and is a member of IRE (Investigative Reporters and Editors).