Was Chris Hayes a Bad Bet for MSNBC?

Consider this advance warning: If you’re a big fan of Chris Hayes’s show on MSNBC, or maybe simply someone who laments the tragic dearth of intelligent, thoughtful programming on cable news in general, you may want to start planning your 140-character-long expressions of outrage now. I say this because if things keep going the way they are, Hayes’s All In will be history by the end of the year. Now before anybody loses their mind at me, I’m not saying this because I don’t have an appreciation for the show and for what Hayes is trying to bring to the cable news prime-time landscape. It’s simply a matter of TV physics: If the ratings aren’t there, the show goes away. And unfortunately for Hayes, the ratings absolutely aren’t there.

When MSNBC made the decision to give Chris Hayes what’s arguably the most important time-slot at the network, I praised both the chance the network was taking on Hayes, an exhaustively depth-prone policy wonk by any measure, and what it seemed to say about the kind of network MS wanted to be moving forward. While it was obvious from the beginning that Hayes is the sort of guy who’s incapable of dumbing himself down to appeal to a broad spectrum, I figured Phil Griffin’s plan would be to create a more workman-like show around Hayes’s erudition, essentially combining unapologetic intellectualism and thorough analysis with the kind of fast-paced production and cleverness that many viewers expected at 8pm on weeknights. When All In actually hit air, I ate my words — because it was clear right off the bat that Griffin’s even ballsier plan for the show that anchored his prime-time was to simply “let Chris be Chris” and let that carry the day. MSNBC basically just moved Hayes’s previous weekend morning panel show to weeknights and, I guess, hoped for the best. It was an unprecedented show of faith in both Hayes and what he represented as a cable news host.

But two months after the debut of All In, the audience has yet to come to the often fascinating, yet just as often tedious, House That Chris Built. Granted, two months isn’t all that long — although in TV years it can be a lifetime — but a quick glance at the numbers that are there show no upward trend or forward momentum but rather a big loss of eyeballs. Overall, it doesn’t read or feel like the right audience just hasn’t found Chris Hayes yet; it reads and feels like the audience in general knows he’s there and just isn’t interested. That’s a problem that, for a television executive, simply can’t be overstated. Hayes is sitting on the premier piece of real estate at MSNBC, the show that exists to set the tone for the evening, and if he’s failing — well, he can’t be allowed to, let’s put it that way. No matter how much nominal backing Hayes may have from Griffin and the enlightened beings of the 30 Rock adminisphere, the situation as it stands right now cannot stand.

All In just delivered MSNBC its lowest ratings at 8pm since 2006 — and an argument can easily be made that the lack of interest in Hayes is bleeding over and infecting both Rachel Maddow and Lawrence O’Donnell, since, again, he’s their lead-in. If you think Phil Griffin isn’t trying his best to stifle full-on panic mode at this point, you truly have no appreciation for how the industry works.

Alex Pareene over at Salon posted a pretty good little column earlier this week that asked, bluntly, “What’s Wrong with MSNBC?” In the piece, he dissects the recent ratings problems MS has been experiencing pretty much across the board and, as the title suggests, tries to figure out just what’s going wrong for the network. The fact is that it could easily be a somewhat arbitrary audience fluctuation — the kind of thing that happens to most news networks and shows at semi-regular intervals but which TV execs always obsess over in an effort to get to the bottom of the disaster — rather than anything MSNBC is or isn’t doing “right.” The only network immune to occasional viewer ambivalence is Fox News, and that’s because the people who watch it don’t watch anything else, certainly not any other news network. Fox News is like McDonald’s fries: a brand more than a product and something Middle-American fat-asses crave and therefore come back for again and again. There’s never a buyer slump for the crap Fox is selling.

But Chris Hayes is special among the MSNBC lineup because his time-slot is special and the chance the network took on him is special (also, his ratings slide is especially deadly). Unlike Maddow, who, while an encyclopedic researcher and passionate defender of esoterica, also has a history in broadcasting, Hayes came to the network almost exclusively as a writer. He’s got a print journalist’s demeanor — and his critics could argue, a print journalist’s arrogance. Hayes often eschews the stories of the day in favor of what he believes the stories of the day should be. That kind of idealism is great on weekend mornings — or as the plot of a certain Aaron Sorkin show on HBO — where a half-hour-long panel discussion on the underreported injustice-of-the-day, as determined by Hayes, can work toward padding out the network coverage with meat it could desperately use. But it’s a really tough sell in prime-time, particularly at the expense of some of the stories the host is poking fun at as not being worthy of coverage anywhere.

I want to see smarter, more cerebral programming on cable, but I understand fully the risk involved in trying to give people what they ostensibly need rather than what they want. I also don’t want to see Chris Hayes fail because, while I don’t always love his show or even like it, there are times that I respect it greatly, and that’s tough to come by in cable news these days. I certainly respect the gamble that MSNBC took by putting Hayes where it did, by going “All In” on him, so to speak. So far, though, that gamble hasn’t paid off. The question now is how long Phil Griffin will continue to sit at the table hoping his luck will change, before finally cutting his losses and cashing out.

Chez Pazienza was the beating heart of The Daily Banter, sadly passing away on February 25, 2017. His voice remains ever present at the Banter, and his influence as powerful as ever.