On Monday night, inside the upscale Parisian restaurant L’Avenue at Saks in midtown Manhattan, MSNBC President Rashida Jones hosted an intimate dinner to celebrate Alex Wagner.
The glitzy event was attended by some of the most elite names in media, including MSNBC host Chris Hayes, Vanity Fair Editor-In-Chief Radhika Jones, former White House press secretary-turned-MSNBC host Jen Psaki, the New York magazine writer Olivia Nuzzi, and Playbook co-author Ryan Lizza, among others. They were greeted by champagne and treated to a three-course dinner, which I am told featured delicious French fries and concluded with a memorable riff on campfire s’mores for dessert.
Jones had called the group together to salute Wagner, who in mid-August took over four nights of the all-important 9pm hour, which was previously hosted by Rachel Maddow. “We’re so happy to have you back in the family and could not be more excited to celebrate you,” Jones said as she toasted “Alex Wagner Tonight.”
But, from a ratings perspective, Wagner’s show has been anything but a success. And while the matter has been whispered about in certain circles of industry wonks, it has surprisingly received little attention in the press.
In September, on evenings “Alex Wagner Tonight” aired, MSNBC saw a stunning year-over-year drop from 2021, when Maddow hosted. In the key 25-54 advertising demo, Wagner’s show lost 50% of Maddow’s audience, sinking from an average in 2021 of 304,000 demo viewers to 151,000 in 2022. And in total viewers, the numbers were down 34%, from 2.4 million to 1.6 million.
To be clear, no one expected that Wagner would fill the massive void left by Maddow, a once-in-a-generation type talent who became a key #Resistance icon during Donald Trump’s presidency. Cable news viewership, in general, has also been in steady decline since Trump left office. And Wagner has outperformed “MSNBC Prime,” the show that temporarily filled Maddow’s vacancy before Wagner took the helm.
But the drop in viewers must certainly be distressing to executives at 30 Rock. As one former television executive told me, “It’s way worse than: we don’t expect [Wagner] to perform at Rachel levels,” describing the ratings plunge as “brutal” and “very troubling.”
“A 50 percent drop in the key 25-54 demo is 50 percent drop in your billable viewer,” the former executive said. “Imagine running a store or restaurant and losing 50 percent of your billable customers. Not your looky-loos. Your paying customers.”
An MSNBC spokesperson declined to comment. To be fair, Wagner’s soft ratings have bested CNN’s. But they have also come at a time when CNN has been without a star 9pm host after the network fired former prime time anchor Chris Cuomo last year.
That is about to change on Monday, at least for a bit, when CNN puts in a marquee-level talent by the name of Jake Tapper, in the 9pm slot. Tapper, one of CNN’s highest-rated anchors, is set to begin hosting a special program that will last through the midterms.
Which is to say that, for the first time in a while, a real 9pm ratings race will finally be underway.
► Meanwhile: The ratings for Chris Cuomo’s NewsNation premiere are in. At 8pm, Cuomo averaged 147,000 viewers, with a stunningly low 8,000 in the key 25-54 demo. That makes him, for now, the king of NewsNation’s news lineup (though Dan Abrams beat him considerably in the demo). But it is a far cry from what he rated during his days at CNN.