Morning Joe, Piping Hot a Year Ago, Steadily Loses Steam

Joe Scarborough held up a copy of The New York Times. It was Monday, Nov. 16, and earlier in the

Joe Scarborough held up a copy of The New York Times. It was Monday, Nov. 16, and earlier in the morning The Times had published a piece about Newsweek, which had recently laid off 13 staffers. Quarterly ad revenue at the newsweekly was down 48 percent versus last year. That said, according to The Times, things were looking up. In the third quarter, The Washington Post’s magazine division, largely comprised of Newsweek, lost only $4.3 million, a major improvement over the first half of the year.

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Mr. Scarborough put down the newspaper and looked over at Jon Meacham, the editor of Newsweek, who was sitting across the table in the Morning Joe studio. “It’s a very positive article, congratulations,” said Mr. Scarborough. “I know it’s a rough time for everyone in print right now.”

Mr. Meacham nodded. The Times article, said Mr. Meacham, was a vote of confidence for everyone in the news business, like Newsweek and Morning Joe, who was fighting the good fight and producing serious journalism. Mr. Scarborough agreed. He was committed to the mission. Hard news, politics, intellectual rigor. MSNBC had made a bet, said Mr. Scarborough, that audiences would reward them for steering clear of tabloid fodder. “We don’t dumb down here,” said Mr. Scarborough.

On Monday’s program, one similarity between Newsweek and Morning Joe was left unspoken—namely, that both are catering to significantly diminishing audiences. Newsweek has lowered its rate base twice in the past two years and will do so again in January. Likewise, Morning Joe is struggling to hang on to viewers. So far this fall, from Sept. 1 through Nov. 13, according to The Observer’s analysis of Nielsen numbers, Morning Joe has averaged 357,000 total viewers and 124,000 in the 25- to 54-year-old demographic—down 35 percent and 43 percent, respectively, from the same time period last year.

Of course, Morning Joe is hardly the only cable news show to suffer a steep decline from last year’s election high. But over the past eight months, Morning Joe has been slipping not only in overall ratings, but also relative to its competition. Not long ago, Morning Joe—like MSNBC’s prime-time lineup—was seemingly well poised to push past CNN into the No. 2 position in cable news (Fox News’ Fox & Friends maintains the top position by a wide margin). To wit: In March of 2009, MSNBC executives announced that Morning Joe had topped CNN’s American Morning in the demographic for the entire month—the first such victory for the network’s morning programming in more than seven years. At the time, MSNBC press releases regularly referred to Morning Joe as “the fastest growing cable news morning show.”

These days, it looks more like the fastest shrinking.

The first two weeks in November have been particularly rough. Morning Joe, during this stretch, has averaged just 315,000 total viewers and 102,000 in the 25- to 54-year-old demographic—and while the show remains competitive in total viewers, it is now regularly finishing in fourth place in the demo, not only behind American Morning (397,000 total viewers; 149,000 in the demo) but also behind Headline News’ Morning Express with Robin Meade (303,000 total viewers; 190,000 in the demo).

“We want higher ratings, and we’re going to get them,” MSNBC’s president, Phil Griffin, told The Observer on Tuesday morning. “It ebbs and flows with what’s going on in the world. But I think 2010 is going to be great for us.”

In late September, The Observer speculated that the imminent debut of an Imus in the Morning simulcast on the Fox Business Network would pose a problem to Morning Joe.

But for the time being, MSNBC executives continue to discount Mr. Imus’ potential impact on Morning Joe. “Imus is not even a blip on the radar,” said a MSNBC spokesperson. (Nielsen does not currently provide ratings data for shows on FBN.) Mr. Griffin called Mr. Imus a “non-player.”

The Morning Joe dip comes at a particularly anxious time at 30 Rockefeller Plaza. Currently, teams of bankers are combing over every detail of the company’s books in preparation for Comcast’s imminent purchase of NBC Universal. Morning Joe’s struggles will not go unnoticed. Perhaps as a result, rumors have been swirling through the building in recent days that a shake-up is about to hit the show, as some insiders question whether MSNBC can maintain the current staff levels despite having already lost a hefty chuck of its bankable audience.

On Tuesday morning, Mr. Griffin shot down the rumors. There was no shake-up in the works, he said. The show’s unique marketing partnership with Starbucks, he explained, was still flourishing and evidence of the show’s continued desirability to advertisers. The state of Morning Joe was strong. “The numbers are down, and they’re probably down for everybody,” he said. “It’s basically a three-way tie for second place in the real scheme of things. I’ll take the quality of Morning Joe’s audience.”

“You can’t find anything like it in the morning,” he added. “CNN, the other day, when we’re showing the president, is doing a story on balloon boy. Or they’re doing Michael Jackson. We’ve got a smart, strong audience. Morning Joe gets more buzz, and that’s because we actually talk about what’s going on in the world that’s important. I believe in the show.”

More from Felix Gillette:

Watch Your Backs, MSNBC! Imus Can See You!

On Morning Joe, Chris Matthews Praises His Old Nemesis Mark Leibovich. Sort Of.

In Recession, Money Honeys Get Company from Grumpy Old Dudes

Morning Joe, Piping Hot a Year Ago, Steadily Loses Steam