The last time that MSNBC was No. 1 in prime-time cable news, Bill Clinton was president, Madonna led the Billboard charts and “Friends” still ran new episodes on TV.
Seventeen years and a few rebrandings later, the network is back on top — buoyed by a surge of interest in news and the channel’s stable of reliably liberal anchors, like Rachel Maddow, who have found their groove amid a time of intense anxiety for the political left.
The MSNBC resurgence — in May, it beat its rivals for the highest prime-time viewership on weeknights in the critical 25-to-54 age demographic, up an astounding 118 percent from a year earlier — is part of a newly shifting landscape in television news, and within the channel itself.
When Andrew Lack became chairman of NBC News in 2015, he announced his intent to shift MSNBC away from Keith Olbermann-style bloviation and toward nonpartisan, straight-ahead news gathering.
Mr. Olbermann may be long gone. Yet the network’s rise has relied largely on its sharply opinionated commentary, with Ms. Maddow moving to No. 1 in prime time on the strength of monologues devoted to President Trump’s ties to Russia, and with Lawrence O’Donnell speaking openly about impeachment.
In an interview, Mr. Lack rejected the notion that MSNBC was a Fox News for the left.
“I don’t buy it,” he said, his voice rising. “And honestly, I’ve never been comfortable with the Fox examples, of how we compare to them, or being an alternative to them. I don’t think we’re an alternative to anything. We’re live, breaking news during the day, and the smartest, most insightful opinion space we can create at night.”
The network’s marketing campaigns have promoted its reporting heft, with experienced journalists like Andrea Mitchell and Chuck Todd taking over daytime hosting duties from the likes of Al Sharpton. Mr. Lack, 70, who helped found MSNBC in 1996, said the investment in straight-news reporting had allowed the channel to compete during last year’s presidential race and led viewers to feel more comfortable turning to MSNBC during breaking news.
Without that journalism, he added, “I don’t think you have the success that you’re seeing.”
MSNBC’s morning and afternoon audience is growing fast: Its total viewership between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. nearly doubled in May from the year before, far outstripping the growth at CNN and Fox News.
Over all, though, the network is still No. 3 in daytime. Its landmark ratings win in May came squarely in the liberal precincts of prime time, and there are signs the network is doubling down in that arena.
Phil Griffin, the executive who cultivated Ms. Maddow and her 8 p.m. lead-in, Chris Hayes, recently agreed to a new long-term deal. Mr. O’Donnell, who announced to viewers last month that MSNBC was dragging its feet on renewing his contract, has secured his 10 p.m. slot.
MSNBC may be benefiting from the same “resistance” effect that cemented Fox News in the top spot at the onset of Barack Obama’s presidency, when the channel was lifted by a wave of conservative discontent.
“There is no question that progressives, liberals on the left side of the political spectrum, have in MSNBC the home they’ve known,” Mr. Lack said in a phone interview. “The work that’s being done is outstanding there in my view, and they’re being rewarded for it.”
Unsurprisingly, MSNBC’s rivals are less than impressed.
More from: The New York Times