As rebel forces breached the walls of Tripoli yesterday, and Muammar el-Qaddafi’s brutal reign seemed poised for a spectacular collapse after months of civil war, American cable news outlets were all over the story. Except for MSNBC, that is.
CNN started reporting live from Libya at 2 p.m., and began dedicating continuous coverage at 6. Fox News first began reporting on Libya during its Fox and Friends morning show at 6 a.m., with continuous live coverage starting at 4 p.m. But for hours, as Tripoli began to fall and as outlets around the world covered the struggle, MSNBC remained mute, choosing not to interrupt its traditional weekend fare of crime documentaries and prison lockup shows until much later in the evening.
The programming discrepancy among the top news networks did not go unnoticed. How could it? At one point, MSNBC was airing home footage of a bear walking on an electric cable while its competition discussed Qaddafi’s future, as pundits took to excoriating it over Twitter. “MSNBC is airing a feature on ‘the 1992 slaying of Roger de la Burde’ rather than covering the fall of #Qaddafi in Tripoli,” The Daily’s Hunter Walker tweeted at around 5 p.m. “CNN and Fox News are in live coverage of Libya uprising. MSNBC: staying with scheduled programming of Caught on Camera in NYC,” tweeted Broadcasting & Cable reporter Andrea Morabito.
Was literally all of MSNBC away for the weekend? How could the second highest-rated cable news network in America remain silent on the impending overthrow of a 40-year Middle East dictator? Reporters reached out to MSNBC in the early evening for an explanation, and the network issued a statement. MSNBC was “monitoring the news closely,” and would be breaking into its regularly scheduled programming at 8 p.m., a spokesperson said.
So what happened? According to sources at MSNBC who agreed to speak to Adweek on condition of anonymity, yesterday’s programming choices were a product of the network’s priorities. “Part of the success of MSNBC is the huge ratings it gets on weekends with these long-form [documentary] shows,” they said. “There are certain times, maybe three or four times a year, when that hurts you because something big breaks. If it happens on the weekends, this place is at a disadvantage. You don’t have people staffing every news desk; you don’t have everybody doing news.”
Odd as it is for a news network to not have news desks staffed on a weekend, the programming strategy has paid off. Last weekend, for example, MSNBC’s Sunday installment of Caught on Camera was the network’s biggest draw of the weekend and its fourth highest-rated show for the entire week.
This weekend isn't the first time MSNBC has come under fire for choosing entertainment over news. In March, network president Phil Griffin defended the decision to air a popular prison documentary called Lockup rather than covering unfolding events in Japan (after the earthquake) or Libya (when the uprising first started), telling The New York Times that shows like Lockup and Caught on Camera have “worked well for us.” Infotainment is the network’s “strategy for weekends,” and MSNBC’s “audience now ‘has an expectation’ of seeing such programs on Saturday and Sunday nights.”
Reached for comment about yesterday’s programming choices, a spokesperson for MSNBC told Adweek, “When the news first broke, we broke into our regular programming with updates. At 7:53 p.m., we started covering continuously for the rest of the evening.”