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The Margin: At MSNBC, ratings have dropped almost 30% for Rachel Maddow’s replacements

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What’s a star talent worth to a cable news network? In the case of MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow, a hefty share of viewers.

The network’s ratings with the all-important 25-54 age group have taken nearly a 30% hit since Maddow, the host of the network’s marquee 9 p.m. ET program, has gone on hiatus to work on a variety of projects, including a movie. Ali Velshi and Alex Wagner have filled in for Maddow, and MSNBC has plans for others to step into the critical spot.

Maddow started her leave earlier in February and is expected to be gone for two months. News reports have suggested, however, that she may not permanently return to her eponymous 9 p.m. show.

MSNBC, which is part of the NBCUniversal conglomerate that is owned by Comcast
CMCSA,
-0.35%
,
isn’t the only cable news network dealing with major changes. CNN
T,
-1.68%

fired its longtime 9 p.m. host Chris Cuomo late last year — he was originally suspended because of his political ties to his embattled brother, former New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo — and now the network has also parted ways with its president, Jeff Zucker, in a growing management scandal. CNN’s ratings took a hit as well following Chris Cuomo’s departure.

MSNBC and CNN were not immediately available for comment on this story.

The ratings downturns don’t come as a surprise to media watchers, who say that cable news has increasingly become a personality-driven business. That is, viewers aren’t tuning in just for the news — they tune in for a particular host’s take on the day’s events.

“There’s a human relationship that happens,” says Eric Schiffer, a Los Angeles-based media and marketing expert.

Schiffer adds that the tie between host and audience has only deepened during the pandemic, because so many of us have been living in increased isolation. The news anchors have, in effect, taken the place of friends.

Not that this is entirely new ground. Americans have long placed their faith in prominent television news people — think of the hold that CBS’ Walter Cronkite once had on the nation.

But that connection only deepened in the era of cable news, particularly after CNN started to face competition from other networks — namely, MSNBC and Fox News.

Robert Thompson, a media expert who is director of Syracuse University’s Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture, says Fox especially changed the game with such hosts as Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity, who became celebrities in their own right. (Fox Corp.
FOXA,
-0.25%

and News Corp.
NWSA,
+1.86%
,
parent company of MarketWatch publisher Dow Jones, share common ownership.)

Thompson adds that the loss of a star news talent, even for a short period, is devastating for a network in that the host is a daily presence. Contrast that to a hit sitcom, which airs but once a week — and even then might have only 26 new episodes a year.

Plus, star hosts give networks a “face,” one that can be leveraged to develop or promote other programming, Thompson notes. “They’re very, very important” to a network’s identity, he says.

Which is not to say it’s game over for a cable news network with the departure of a star.

Marc Berman, editor in chief of Programming Insider, a website that tracks the television and streaming industry, says the key for networks is not to look for a carbon-copy of a popular host, since no two talents are quite alike. Instead, networks should seek out fresh faces who bring their own skills and perspective, he says.

“It’s not, ‘Who’s like Rachel Maddow?’” Berman says. “It’s, ‘Who is trustworthy, has knowledge and has a good presence?’”

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