MSNBC treads water during jam-packed news quarter, fails to add viewers

The first quarter of 2020 was filled to the brim with news, from the impeachment trial of President Trump and the contentious Democratic primary to the growing coronavirus pandemic, but MSNBC failed to add viewers, and experts say that's a serious issue for the far-left network.

“This should concern the MSNBC hierarchy,” DePauw University professor and media critic Jeffrey McCall told Fox News.

Fox News grew 38 percent among total viewers during the first quarter of 2020 compared to the same time period last year, and MSNBC's liberal rival CNN grew 26 percent, while MSNBC finished the quarter with roughly the same viewership as Q1 of 2019.

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It was even worse for MSNBC when it comes to the key news demographic of adults age 25-54, as Fox News grew 42 percent and CNN grew 27 percent, while MSNBC dropped by one percent – losing viewers during, arguably, the most newsworthy quarter in a decade.

MSNBC’s primetime lineup of Chris Hayes, Rachel Maddow and Lawrence O’Donnell was completely flat compared to last year, while Fox News and CNN both grew by at least 35 percent during the hours of 8-11 p.m. ET.

MSNBC still managed to finish the quarter behind Fox News as the No. 2 basic cable network, but the lack of growth during a jam-packed news quarter should be extremely concerning to MSNBC honchos, McCall said.

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"The impeachment trial, COVID-19 coverage and the Democrat presidential primary should have all provided MSNBC plenty of spark to generate audience growth. The flat MSNBC viewership numbers suggest that the channel can maintain their loyal, core audience, but that the appeal of MSNBC is limited beyond the channel's true believers,” McCall said.

"The flat MSNBC viewership numbers suggest that the channel can maintain their loyal, core audience, but that the appeal of MSNBC is limited beyond the channel's true believers... this should concern the MSNBC hierarchy."

— Media critic Jeffrey McCall

“It is natural that big stories such as impeachment, COVID-19 and the contested Democrat primary will draw the less consistent news viewers back into the audience, including viewers who are more politically independent," McCall explained. "That MSNBC apparently failed to attract some of this audience growth would seem to indicate that MSNBC's appeal is largely to a narrow, more ideologically driven news consumer.'

McCall says the marketplace is telling NBC executives that their “appeal is limited beyond the normal core” and that “casual news viewers don't see MSNBC as a place to get something other than the expected ideologically-charged point of view,” which is typically far-left and anti-Trump.

“MSNBC has made money off of this strategy, but it is limiting when it comes time for covering high-impact stories and trying to reach broader demographics,” McCall added.

“The Rachel Maddow Show,” which is the network’s most popular program and cash cow, finished the first quarter behind five different Fox News programs, including non-primetime shows “The Five” and “Special Report with Bret Bair.”

On March 25, Maddow’s show even finished outside the 20 most-watched cable news programs among the key demo, something that would have been unthinkable not long ago.

Maddow has famously spent much of her program hyperventilating over whether or not Trump colluded with Russia until Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report contradicted her nightly narrative. At the time, ex-MSNBC host Krystal Ball blasted her former colleague for floating wild “Russian conspiracy theories” that were not supported by Mueller's report.

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“Rachel Maddow, you’ve got some explaining to do,” Ball said, but Maddow hasn’t stopped anti-Trump speculation. Maddow recently told her viewers it was “nonsense” to believe Trump’s word that the USNS Comfort could be ready to quickly help New Yorkers, but it arrived at the front lines of the coronavirus outbreak only 10 days after her comment.

“In the midst of a global crisis, people are turning to other outlets, not MSNBC."

— Dan Gainor

“In the midst of a global crisis, people are turning to other outlets, not MSNBC. Maybe that's because they don't want to hear more lies about Russian collusion from Rachel Maddow. Or more lies in general from Brian Williams. Or maybe it's just because no one other than their core audience takes them seriously,” Media Research Center vice president Dan Gainor told Fox News.

"Maybe it's just because no one other than their core audience takes them seriously."

— Dan Gainor

Fourth Watch editor Steve Krakauer on Sunday slammed MSNBC’s Brian Williams, who was famously demoted from NBC’s “Nightly News” after embellishing stories, for his “over-the-top” criticism of Dr. Deborah Birx.

“There's a way to critique the administration and the president, and then there's these low points from journalists who really should know better,” Krakauer wrote, comparing Williams to a “basement blogger.”

Williams also had an embarrassing math debacle in March, inaccurately suggesting the $500 million that Michael Bloomberg spent on advertising during his short-lived presidential campaign could have supplied every American with their own check for $1 million. In reality, however, had Bloomberg divvied his advertising dollars among all Americans, the per-capita cash-out would have been more like $1.53 per person – not even enough to take a ride on New York City’s subway.

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Status Coup founder and journalist Jordan Chariton used to cover cable news ratings when he was an editor for TVNewser earlier in his career. He’s been an outspoken critic of what he calls “corporate media” and has another theory about MSNBC’s lack of growth in the ratings department.

“There's something else that was occurring in that first quarter that might have made MSNBC viewers look away—Bernie Sanders winning Iowa, New Hampshire, and Nevada,” Chariton told Fox News.

In fact, MSNBC was widely criticized during the quarter for its antagonistic coverage of Sanders, as many observers felt progressive MSNBC hosts and pundits openly preferred a moderate Democrat such as Joe Biden.

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If MSNBC brass is concerned about the lack of new viewers, they certainly haven’t implemented any changes yet.

The network didn’t get off to a strong start to the second quarter from a credibility standpoint on Wednesday, as “Morning Joe” namesake Joe Scarborough was widely mocked on social media after declaring that “everybody” saw the coronavirus epidemic coming “in early January” despite his own show not even uttering the word coronavirus until Jan. 24, according to Grabien Media.

Grabien founder Tom Elliot noted that Scarborough’s first commentary on coronavirus occurred roughly two months after what could be considered “early January.”

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Fox News’ Joseph A. Wulfsohn contributed to this report.