Can MSNBC Stop Bleeding Viewers?

MSNBC is ratings free fall and it appears they are starting to panic.

For the cable news network that admits it doesn't do very well covering news has put all their eggs in the George Zimmerman basket.  

MSNBC which prides itself as the place for politics, has cast that aside to join all the other cable nets in obsessing over the Zimmerman case. 

The National Journal asks if the amount of Zimmerman mania was causing any eye rolling at the network, one MSNBC insider said: "It's less the amount of coverage because everyone does that and especially after CNN covering [Jodi] Arias [murder trial] did so well. And we have a large African-American viewership that's interested. The issue is whether we cover it the right way, as a legal issue, which we're mostly doing or does it get covered like it's 2012, when there was no indictment, as a political fight. I worry."

Balancing liberal politics and news, politics and other subjects--it's all an issue for MSNBC this summer. Earlier this month when the cable news ratings for the second quarter of 2013 came out, there was a head-jarring decline in MSNBC's numbers. After a great 2012 in which the liberal-leaning network had bested CNN and, at times, caught up to perennial leader Fox News Channel, MSNBC's was losing the race. By a lot. It had just 576,000 primetime viewers, by one metric, a figure that's down 16 percent from the heady days of 2012.

The question as to why offers some insights into MSNBC's future and, perhaps, the still-unresolved challenges facing a liberal network during a Democratic administration. 

"When you're too predictably a mouthpiece for the administration and you cast your lot with the president's performance, there's a risk," said David Shuster, who left the network for Current TV when his contract expired in 2011. He pointed to Fox's higher production values as one of the reasons for the conservative network's ongoing ratings dominance lead and the high-brow nature of MSNBC's prime time lineup as one of the reasons for its most recent decline.

MSNBC declined to comment for this story, but cable news veterans -- including former MSNBC alumni -- offered their own theories of what ails the network. One common theory is that MSNBC feels threatened by a resurgent CNN.

"MSNBC's apparent success was owing to CNN's failure," says a former cable executive. "CNN was run so poorly that it made MSNBC look fantastic by comparison. "

That seems ready to change. Jeff Zucker, the former head of NBC Universal and the guiding hand behind 16 years of Today show victories, has buffed the look of CNN, bringing in network stars like Chris Cuomo and Jake Tapper. But more importantly, his expanding definition of breaking news to include the Zimmerman trial gives CNN more room to run.

In a sign of how things have turned at MSNBC, Keith Olbermann recently signed a deal as the lead postseason baseball anchor for TBS, while many of MSNBC's primetime stars are dealing with speculation over their declining ratings. Olbermann, no stranger to controversy, even waded in himself on Twitter, writing that the network had "collapsed" since he left and that he hadn't heard from his protégé Rachel Maddow since.

Others smell blood, too. Bill O'Reilly took a shot at MSNBC last week as he often does after Chris Matthews referred to Sen. Ted Cruz as looking a bit black Irish. "It's all falling apart," O'Reilly said of MSNBC.

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