After Olbermann, Is Comcast Set to Overhaul MSNBC? Don't Bet on It

Keith Olbermann Keith Olbermann's sudden departure from MSNBC last week has fanned conspiracy theory flames throughout media. Those arguments hold that the conservatives at Comcast (CMCSA) wanted to oust the liberal broadcaster and shake up the cable channel's lineup ahead of this month's takeover of NBC Universal by the Philadelphia-based cable giant. That thinking doesn't hold up for several reasons.

Primarily, the problems NBC had with Olbermann were managerial and not political. Economics also played a big role. The host of Countdown With Keith Olbermann was due to receive $17 million over the next two years and is receiving an exit package valued at well in excess of $7 million, according to various media reports. Even if Olbermann hadn't alienated his bosses and broken corporate rules about political donations, he probably would been asked to take a pay cut because the channel's economics don't seem to justify it.

A Politically Pragmatic CEO


According to the Project for Excellence in Journalism, MSNBC generated $367.5 million in revenue in 2009, along with $149.6 million in profit. The 2010 figures were no doubt better because of the contentious midterm elections, but they probably trailed News Corp.'s (NWS) Fox ($1.21 billion in 2009 revenue, $534.8 million in profit) and Time Warner's (TWX) CNN and HLN ($1.18 billion in 2009 revenue and $475.5 million in profit). The report's figures show MSNBC and CNN/HLN 's finances were little changed, while Fox News posted double-digit gains in both revenue and profits from 2008.

Also, it seems unlikely that Comcast would have been keen to dump a star with an audience of more than 1 million people. Unlike News Corp.'s Rupert Murdoch, Comcast CEO Brian Roberts is more pragmatic politically. Given that his company is based in Philadelphia, where the Republican party is virtually nonexistent, he has little choice. According to Open Secrets.Org, the cable giant donated $1.8 million to Democrats versus $1.1 million for Republicans in 2010.

In fact, former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, whose former top aide David L. Cohen is a key Comcast executive, reportedly is in talks to become a pundit on MSNBC for the 2012 presidential election.

If Olbermann had stayed with a salary cut, Comcast would have had little reason to mess with MSNBC, which also helps augment NBC News coverage of major stories. As of November, MSNBC topped CNN for eight straight months in the ratings among viewers 25 to 54, the demographic that news-program advertisers target. CNN has recently gotten a bump in the ratings from Piers Morgan Tonight, though it remains to be seen whether viewers' initial enthusiasm for the British talk show host will wane. Many MSNBC shows including The Rachel Maddow Show and The Ed Show have posted solid ratings.

Why Mess With Success?

For advertisers, ratings are important, but so are demographics. In that respect, the MNBC audience has a lot going for it. It has an average age of 41.8 with a median household income of $79,500 (compared with average U.S. household income of $52,029), according to data from the Cableltelevision Advertising Bureau. Sixty eight percent are college-educated. That's better than the CNN audience's average age of 60.3, with a median household income of $54,000. Only 36% of CNN viewers have four years of college. The Cabletelevision Advertising Bureau says the audience for Fox News Channel, by far the No. 1 cable news network, skews even older, with an average age of 62 and a median household income $53,468. Thirty-one percent of Fox viewers went to college.

Update: The MSNBC figures cited by the Cabletelevision Advertising Bureau were derived from a survey of viewers aged 25 to 54, the demographic advertisers seek from news shows while the Fox and CNN data were derived from the entire audience. Nielsen shows MSNBC's audience having a median age of 59 with a median household income of $53,000. The median age of Fox's audience is 63, the same as CNN, according to Nielsen. The median household income of Fox viewers is $53,000 and $48,000 for CNN. Nielsen estimates that 37.5% of MSNBC viewers completed at least 4 years of college compared with 36.5% for CNN and 30.6% for Fox.

If MSNBC can continue to deliver a young (by news standards), educated and fairly well-heeled audience, Comcast probably has no interest with tinkering with the channel's programming, which appears to be working. Likewise, changing MSNBC's political tone would create a firestorm of negative publicity that the company would prefer to avoid.

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43 Comments

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CherMoeLin

This blog page doesn't allow votes against Fox News or anything negative against Republicans. Makes you wonder about censorship and the merger.

February 15 2011 at 8:17 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
CJ

Doberman gone, Madcow is next.

January 25 2011 at 5:25 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
DeDe

Loss of Keith Olermann is very suspect! If more changes occur in this direction, I will certainly be changing channels or turning off the TV all together.

January 25 2011 at 3:24 PM Report abuse -3 rate up rate down Reply
tfava

Keith Olbrman is 200% bullsh*t

January 25 2011 at 3:06 PM Report abuse +3 rate up rate down Reply
werhere7

Wisdom and seeking the truth is always prefered to hate mongers who preach fear especially to the elderly. I watch all these cable stations and I guess alot of people like that stuff on FOX.

January 25 2011 at 2:43 PM Report abuse -3 rate up rate down Reply
muenft

Keith, do;t pay any attention to the mean comments about you and the job you did at msnbc. just remember what i told yu whenyou were young..Jesus loves you..but everyone else thinks your an A$$ hole.

January 25 2011 at 12:24 PM Report abuse +5 rate up rate down Reply
muenft

Just think how bad it will be for fox if msnbc puts on some honest reporters that give a balanced report of the news.. Ofcourse that won;t happen. I llok fowad to the day that butch "female" anchor says goodby for the last time.

January 25 2011 at 12:22 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply
mrtelli

Pretty consistent- majority of comments show Olberman is disliked. As bad as their ratings are, I think a lot of it is actually people like myself, who tune in sometimes just to see what outrageous, hatred stuff he was spewing. I don't see how the demos show that MSNBC audience is so "educated"- doesn't seem to jive; educated people should be able to see the sham of an outfit they are running, essentially trying to ruin people's character and attack anyone who doesnt have a far left viewpoint- maybe most are like me- watching for entertainment value!

January 25 2011 at 12:16 PM Report abuse +3 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to mrtelli's comment
CherMoeLin

Now that everything has come out about Bush and Cheney, both blatantly admitting they agreed to torture, and that the intelligence on the wars was "fudged" ... I'd say Keith Olbermann definitely had some credibility whether you choose to acknowledge it or not. Your "majority" that dislikes Olbermann is the same as your "majority" of people that watch the Fox propaganda machine 24/7. Lots more hatred spewed there and not just by one person. So much for your theories.

February 15 2011 at 8:45 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
alpompie2

Good by and good work. I always changed the channel when he came on. He will not be missed.To me he projected hate not news.The Ed Show will be next Hate not news.

January 25 2011 at 11:08 AM Report abuse +3 rate up rate down Reply
henshib

Mr. Olbermann, probably a good man his mother raised, however, somewhere along the line his heart filled with hate for his fellow man. A change may do him good.

January 25 2011 at 10:24 AM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply