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Can cable news win over young viewers? At MSNBC, a 40-year-old new president is going to try.

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 5/24/2021 Jeremy Barr
Rashida Jones looking at the camera: Rashida Jones became president of MSNBC News on Feb. 1, replacing Phil Griffin. (NBCUniversal) © NBCUniversal/NBCUniversal Rashida Jones became president of MSNBC News on Feb. 1, replacing Phil Griffin. (NBCUniversal)

Cable news is not for the young.

In recent years, the median age of viewers who watch the big three cable news networks — CNN, Fox News Channel and MSNBC — has been in the 60s, an audience that television news industry analyst Andrew Tyndall calls positively “geriatric.” At MSNBC, the median age this year has been 68, four years older than CNN, according to the latest data from Nielsen. That’s up from a median age of 65 in 2017.

Which makes it all the more noteworthy that MSNBC’s newly appointed president is a 40-year-old “digital native” millennial named Rashida Jones.

Attracting younger viewers has long been the white whale of the cable news industry, said Mark Lukasiewicz, a former NBC News executive who now serves as dean of the Lawrence Herbert School of Communication at Hofstra University. The challenge, he said, is that “people start caring about news when they get older. People age into an interest in news.” Yet there’s no guarantee that today’s cord-cutting younger audiences will turn to cable news when they make it to that point. Meanwhile, advertisers remain most beguiled by viewers between the ages of 25 and 54.

Jones is new in the job — she started in February, replacing Phil Griffin, who had served as president since 2008 — but she has been thinking about how to mint more MSNBC fans of all ages by publishing content across a multitude of platforms and formats, not just the traditional television channel.

“I would very much like to have more people watch us on every brand, but I also want to make sure we’re going to where people are already consuming,” Jones said.

That means a new focus on streaming, as MSNBC hands out nightly shows to rising commentators such as Mehdi Hasan, 41, and Zerlina Maxwell, 39, that are available to watch on the Peacock application, instead of the traditional MSNBC television channel. Jones recently gave Hasan a show on the TV channel on Sunday nights as well, an example of the cross-platform programming approach that is likely to become the norm in cable news.

“You’ll see more of that kind of blurring of the lines,” Jones said, “because it’s how people consume content.” For the most part, MSNBC’s biggest stars have volunteered to branch out into streaming, she said; popular afternoon host Nicolle Wallace is in discussions about a new Peacock show. “It’s not us going to them. They see where the audience is going. … It’s also a place where you can experiment a little bit.”

Whether the push to streaming will get them the viewers they’re seeking remains to be seen. Streaming may be where the young people are, but industry analyst Brad Adgate questioned whether the MSNBC brand — or the CNN or Fox brand — still resonates with them. “There’s just a lot of choices that younger people have,” he said.

Audiences for all cable news networks have diminished from the height of the 2020 political drama to the quieter Biden era. For a liberal-leaning channel such as MSNBC that derived a certain resistance energy from the Trump years, it has raised natural questions about whether it’s time to alter its political perspectives.

But Jones argues that “consistency is the long game” and that “we’re not going to necessarily knee-jerk because numbers have fluctuated in or out of an administration.” When picking new voices and shows for MSNBC, Jones said she’s not focused on specific ideologies. “I’m interested in a variety of perspectives, but I start with the perspective,” she said. “And not a prescription of, ‘Okay, we’re missing this voice or this viewpoint. Maybe we need something more progressive or something on the other end of the spectrum.’ ”

As a representative of a new generation, the mother of two children and the first Black person to run a national television news network, Jones seems to be part of NBCUniversal’s plan to modernize MSNBC. (In April, Kim Godwin was hired as president of ABC News, becoming the first Black woman to run a broadcast television news division.) Jones got her start in the business while still an undergraduate at Hampton University, working as a producer for CBS affiliate WTKR in Norfolk.

“As a person living in this world, I consume and experience things in ways that maybe my successors didn’t or my counterparts haven’t,” Jones said. And as a longtime news and information consumer, “I think I’ve probably been a little bit ahead of the curve in being platform-agnostic,” she said. “I just liked information, and it didn’t matter from where it came.”

Yvette Miley, an executive who now oversees diversity, equity and inclusion across MSNBC, CNBC and NBC News, was responsible for bringing Jones to the company in 2013, after being impressed by her at a gathering of executives of MSNBC and the Weather Channel, where Jones worked as director of live programming. Miley recalls pulling Jones aside and telling her she could run a network one day. (“She thanked me for the comment, but she probably thought I was full of it.”)

“We all need an injection of impatience with the status quo, and we all need an injection of being a little intolerant of the way things have always been,” Miley said. “Rashida brings that boldness that demands change.”

MSNBC, home of Joy Reid, the only Black female host in prime-time news, is the most popular cable news network with Black viewers this quarter, accounting for 26 percent of the network’s total viewership throughout the day and 22 percent of the weekday prime-time audience. The network also attracts Asian and Pacific Islander viewers at a higher clip than the competition, representing 4 percent of the prime-time total viewership during the same time period.

“Increasing our reach across the board” will be one of Jones’s main focuses, she said — as well as hiring more talent that better resembles a cross-section of the nation.

MSNBC still commands an unusual devotion from its fans. During the first three months of 2021, committed MSNBC viewers watched the network for an average of 433 minutes per week, compared to 325 minutes for comparable Fox viewers and 291 minutes for CNN viewers, according to Nielsen data.

“We have audiences that will sit there and watch for hours and hours and hours,” Jones said. “So, how do we get more people into that camp?”

Read more:

Kim Godwin will be president of ABC News, the first Black woman to run a broadcast television news division

Rashida Jones, replacing Phil Griffin at MSNBC, will be first Black woman to run a cable news network


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