With the addition of Hugh Hewitt’s new Saturday morning show, MSNBC appears to be betting on the long-term potential of drawing more viewers outside of its liberal core audience, even if ratings for the conservative commentator aren’t initially great.
Hewitt’s Saturday 8 a.m. show only runs for 30 minutes, and although the network would not describe it as such, one longtime television executive called it a “trial run” for a potentially longer and better scheduled program. Hewitt reportedly angled for a more desirable evening time slot.
MSNBC, over the last few months, has sought to diversify a talent anchor pool that largely skews left and is headlined by progressive heroes like Rachel Maddow and Lawrence O’Donnell. As explained in a May feature from former MSNBC contributor Ryan Grim, the network’s top brass seems to be moving in a center-right direction even as left-leaning viewers have boosted ratings and reversed the channel’s fortunes. During the Obama years, MSNBC was not as strong a draw as during the George W. Bush years.
Giving shows to right-leaning political pundits like Hewitt, it is thought by some outside the company, could help attract right-leaning viewers that would not ordinarily watch MSNBC. While the show might not thrive in the short-term, the network could be making a longer term play for new viewers that could bear fruit down the road.
But some chafe at the idea that MSNBC has hit a ceiling on liberal viewers and should go after viewers on other parts of the political spectrum.
“Hugh Hewitt, of course, will not do well in the ratings. It’s an obvious mismatch for anyone who cares about ratings,” said one former MSNBC host who argued that the network should instead super-serve the existing audience. The soft launch for the Hewitt show, this individual said, might just be standard practice for a new program rather than a deliberate attempt to play it cool with a host that might turn off some viewers.
Hewitt’s first show was headlined by a meaty interview with CIA director Mike Pompeo, a good “get.” Because the 8 a.m. time slot was previously occupied by MSNBC Live, the show does not have a high ratings bar to eclipse. In June 2016, MSNBC averaged 75,000 viewers in the time slot in the 25-to-54 demo prized by advertisers. On Saturday, Hewitt’s show brought in 112,000 viewers, the network said — not a bonanza, but still a year-over-year improvement.
The Hewitt hiring drew ire from some corners of the internet, and left-leaning media watchdog Media Matters for America called the radio host a “Trump champion” and “Sean Hannity in glasses.” But while some people protested the announcement and NBC chairman Andy Lack on Twitter by using hashtags like #FireAndyLack and #noHewitt, there doesn’t appear to be any formal effort to protest the show, and the network said it was not aware of any campaign targeting advertisers.
MSNBC did not make Hewitt available to discuss his new show.