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, author of the New York Olivia. Nuzzi and Playbook co-writer Ryan Lizza, among others. They were greeted with champagne and treated to a three-course dinner, which I’m told included delicious French fries and ended with an unforgettable campfire dessert riff.
Jones had convened the group to welcome Wagner, who in mid-August took over four nights of the all-important 9 p.m. slot previously hosted by Rachel Maddow. “We’re so happy to have you back in the family and couldn’t be more excited to celebrate you,” Jones said as she sang on “Alex Wagner Tonight.”
But from a ratings standpoint, Wagner’s show was anything but a success. And while the issue has been whispered about in some industry circles, it has surprisingly received little attention in the press.
In September, on nights that aired “Alex Wagner Tonight,” 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, falling from an average of 304,000 viewers in 2021 to 151,000 in 2022. And in total viewers, the numbers fell 34%, from 2, 4 million to 1. million.
To be clear, no one expected Wagner to fill the huge void left by Maddow, a once-in-a-generation talent who became a key symbol of the #Resistance during Donald Trump’s presidency. Cable news ratings, in general, have also been in steady decline since Trump left office. And Wagner surpassed “MSNBC Prime,” the show that temporarily filled Maddow’s vacancy before Wagner took the helm.
But the drop in viewership must surely be worrying for 30 Rock executives. As one former TV executive told me, “It’s much worse than: we don’t wait [Wagner] to perform at Rachel’s levels’, describing the ratings plunge as ‘brutal’ and ‘very worrying’.
“A 50 percent drop in the core 25-54 demo is a 50 percent drop in your billable viewership,” the former executive said. “Imagine owning a store or restaurant and losing 50 percent of your billable customers. It’s not your looky-loos. Paying customers.”
An MSNBC spokesman declined to comment. To be fair, Wagner’s low ratings surpassed CNN’s. But they also come at a time when CNN is without a 9 p.m. anchor after the network fired former anchor Chris Cuomo last year.
That’s about to change Monday, at least for a while, when CNN puts a marquee-level talent named Jake Tapper on the 9 p.m. Tapper, one of CNN’s top anchors, is set to begin hosting a special program that will run through the midterms.
Which means that, for the first time in a while, a real TV showdown will finally begin at 9pm.
► Meanwhile: NewsNation’s Chris Cuomo’s premiere ratings are in. At 8 p.m., Cuomo averaged 147,000 viewers, with a surprisingly low 8,000 in the key 25-54 demo. That makes him, for now, NewsNation’s king of news (though Dan Abrams beat him to the punch in the demo). But it’s a far cry from what he rated during his CNN days.