The failed Wisconsin recall a week ago (6/5) generated a lot of conventional wisdom: Scott Walker renewed his mandate, the unions lost, and a new dynamic was introduced into the presidential campaign that helped the Romney campaign. And from a media perspective, Fox News was crowned the winner while MSNBC and, in particular, Ed Schultz were the grieving losers.
The mood around MSNBC that night and the next day bore witness to the disappointment of the MSNBC hosts. Pundits — conservative and liberal — mocked MSNBC’s seemingly all-in bet on the recall.
Despite their disappointment being palpable, it does not mean that MSNBC “lost”. MSNBC is not in the business of getting democrats elected (as much as it may seem to be the case); MSNBC is in the business of selling its viewers to advertisers. When you look at it from the perspective of ratings and social media, the night becomes a win for Ed Schultz.
Start at the recent ratings for the Ed Show in the 8pm ET slot1:
The week before and the week of the election brought in large audiences for the show, and the night of the recall produced a huge spike. The 8pm show had an audience 43% larger than normal, and the 11pm show (which was live that night) was 58% above normal. These additional viewers represent a growing audience for Ed (and Ed’s sponsors).
In terms of social media engagement, Ed generated a lot of buzz as well:
Twitter activity about the show more or less doubled in the run-up to the election. Online activity grew faster than the audience did, indicating that the viewers were becoming more deeply engaged with the show2.
Yes, the outcome of the election was not to Ed’s liking. Yes, he’s taken some criticism for moving so very far away from the ideal of an impartial press. But the sponsors can’t help but be pleased with the uptick in his ratings. The real question now is whether Ed can find a way to sustain his enlarged and engaged audience3. His vacation shortly after the recall takes a bit of wind out of his show’s sails4. Ed’s challenge is to pick things up upon return and sustain his larger audience. If he does, then Ed will have the last laugh (even if Lawrence has the last word…).
To be clear, this only shows ratings for the 8pm showing and not additive audience from the 11pm rerun.
Social media engagement may not produce immediate benefits for the advertisers, but by building a community of people who engage with the show it does help sustain the TV audience.
Which is not to underestimate the challenge of this. But with the run up to the general election in November and my state, Florida, doing its best to ensure that our ability to hold fair elections stays in question, Ed should find something or the other to talk about for a while.
Despite his substitute being the always fascinating Michael Eric Dyson. At this rate, it seems, the network will be known as MSNPhD!