With the promotion of Rachel Maddow, the Air America radio host, to a prime-time television spot this week, the longtime third-place cable news network MSNBC cemented its identity as a channel for a liberal audience.But is that what advertisers want it to be?
MSNBC, which is owned by NBC Universal, a unit of General Electric, does not trumpet its shift. But in the 12 years that MSNBC has competed head-to-head with CNN and the Fox News Channel, the partisan lines have never been drawn so neatly.
I can appreciate that MSNBC's lineup is outside the norm for American media, but asking whether advertisers are ready for the one-two punch of Olbermann and Maddow seems to miss the point. Advertisers turn to television shows that people watch.
If we turn back the clock a bit, we see that it wasn't too long ago that MSNBC added Tucker Carlson to its primetime lineup, apparently hoping to capitalize on Fox News' success appealing to a Republican audience. If cable-news viewers were flocking to a conservative, partisan network, MSNBC seemed to believe, then the answer was to keep up by putting more conservatives on the air.
The result was Fox News-lite -- a lineup with conservative Carlson, conservative Joe Scarborough, and the politically baffling Chris Matthews, who, within a single program, is capable of both praising Obama and criticizing him for drinking orange juice. (At one point, MSNBC even gave Michael Savage a show.)
Viewers didn't exactly flock to this lineup. There's already a Republican news network; no one needed a pale imitation. But with Olbermann's ratings continuing to blossom, MSNBC seems to think it's time to offer something different. It strikes me as good business sense, and a healthy dose of common sense.
"Is that what advertisers want it to be?" If viewers show up, and I'm confident they will, the advertisers will be fine.