Melissa Harris-Perry may have sacrificed #Nerdland on principles that don’t matter in cable media

By | February 29, 2016

Mike Green

– Sadly, I think Melissa Harris-Perry’s response to the undignified manner in which she has been treated by MSNBC is a public display of naiveté about the business of media and the goal of her employer in the industry.

Dr. Harris-Perry most assuredly worked extremely hard to bring a segment of diverse viewership to MSNBC and sustain an audience and branding (#nerdland) around issues important to diverse populations over the past four years of her tenure at MSNBC. None of her honorable efforts or any subsequent impact (however positive) outweighs the decisions made by executives to pander to the latest in audience viewership, which is the election. The value of MHP in the lineup at MSNBC may play a minor role in a separate discussion addressing the disrespectful manner in which Dr. Harris-Perry perceives she was treated by executives. But that discussion doesn’t warrant a public protest by boycotting an inconsequential four-hour time slot assigned to her this weekend in South Carolina.

The MSNBC leadership isn’t likely to pass on the most important opportunities to generate revenue during a historic election process in order to maintain the sanctity of a contractual relationship with any of its hosts … unless said host is actually raking in the ratings and would cost the station in lost ratings if not on the air. While I cannot know for certain why they chose not to at least share with Dr. Harris-Perry the rationale behind their decisions impacting her time slot, her program and her in particular, I think the most likely explanation is they simply did not want to debate the issue and risk her protests against their decisions. (Obviously, that’s a part of their obtuse plan that failed).

Pandering is not just for politicians

The seasonal pandering to presidential politics is not only an expectation among news media (and particularly cable news), but it is truly surprising that MHP seems to be caught off guard by it all. The media industry is a highly competitive business. From the competition for audience eyeballs and engagement (which translates into ratings and augmented revenue from marketers) to the competitive nature of who gets to sit in front of the camera, in which coveted time slot and address which issues, all of the landscape is competitive.

The goal of cable news is to win every time slot, capture audience attention, exploit every news issue, item and cycle to its fullest in order to be No. 1 in the competition. Cable news is not focused on the high ideals of educating audiences, and ensuring inclusion of lesser-known but important issues and stories, or elevating the overall awareness and knowledge of the audience society, history, and the world in which we live. That honorable goal isn’t mutually exclusive from the competitive race for ratings, but it most assuredly is a sacrificial lamb.

Competitiveness in media

MSNBC obviously believed(s) MHP could play a valuable role in its lineup and appeal to an audience that it otherwise had little knowledge of and virtually no relationship. That is why, even as an academic, Dr. Harris-Perry is sitting in a coveted spot where professional journalists who have spent their entire careers hoped to be. She won the competition for that program. She won the opportunity to present issues and ideas and guests as she determined. She won the autonomous role so many others covet on one of the nation’s top cable news networks. But, once there atop her mountain, she realized that it was one of the smallest mountains in a giant range. And to elevate her role and her program, she would have to compete against seasoned pros, like Rachel Maddow and Chris Hayes and others who also have to compete for audience eyeballs and ratings to win their time slots against competing cable news programs.

The sideline role Dr. Perry playing is due to her appeal, or relative lack thereof, in comparison to her on-air counterparts. The business decisions made to suspend her show dovetail with similar decisions to move highly rated shows to new temporary time slots, send popular news commentary hosts on the road and lengthen work days while shortening prep time for everyone on the payroll in order to remain a step ahead of the competition, or at least on par.

The MHP program plays a privileged role as a cog in a media machine. At some point Dr. Harris-Perry may have forgotten that, given the editorial latitude she experienced. She should be forgiven for such amnesia. It affects everyone in front of the camera for long periods of time. (Ask Dan Rather).

The role of MHP

Dr. Harris-Perry would do well to understand that her role is important to the viewing audience and the MSNBC machine, which benefits from diverse perspectives inside the newsroom; and she ought not put that role at risk to make a public point. Despite the value of the issues and insights she brings to light, and the diverse audience appeal of her program, if the show is competing against a political circus atmosphere that’s commanding record ratings across the cable news landscape, MSNBC will do what it needs to do to compete for market share. Her role as an on-air personality is to help MSNBC compete. If she can do that and also accomplish her goals of inclusive coverage of neglected issues, everybody wins.

The fundamental foundation of capitalism is competitiveness. And the media industry is a prime example of the competitive capitalist construct within an industry. While journalists enjoy the support of a constitutional protection that empowers them to gain access to information and empower the public with information it can use to effectively engage in the political process, the reality of the landscape is that it primarily exploits such power and influence to pander to ratings. And while that seems to be a condescending perspective, it isn’t meant to be. Media must pay for itself. Audience engagement plays a critical role in that equation.

Covering the Big Top

If the cable news audience isn’t interested in eating vegetables, such as the very healthy MHP program, then it must be fed the candy and popcorn it desires (while sneaking in a few spoonfuls of veggies and other healthy nutrients, which “All In with Chris Hayes” and “The Rachel Maddow Show” do successfully). During the political circus we’re witnessing in real time, MSNBC and its competitors have experienced record-breaking audiences tuning in. We like popcorn, candy and soda while we watch the circus. So, the cable news shows are obliged to keep feeding us this diet that we crave while parading clown after clown in front of us because we, like toddlers, continue to be entertained by watching the devolution of our political process and the various elementary schoolyard antics of the candidates over and over again.

Our attention to MSNBC helps to pay MHP for the privilege to do what she does. So for now, she must trade her coveted time slot and editorial control to help MSNBC compete against other cable news networks and pay some bills. Perhaps Dr. Harris-Perry could think of her vacation from the anchor seat of her program as a long commercial break. At some point, she will be back on air with full control again (barring any permanently negative outcome of her protest). But just like any commercial break, she can use the time to prepare for her return to the bright lights.

Mike Green is an ward-winning journalist and the co-founder of ScaleUp Partners, a national consultancy on issues of inclusive economic competitiveness. Twitter: @amikegreen2 Email: mike@scaleuppartners.com