Maddow Knows Why You're Not WatchingThe MSNBC anchor on why campaign stories are not rating -- and when they will start to 5/28/2012 12:01:00 AM Eastern
It was four short months ago that cable news pundits were giddy with
the thought of a brokered Republican convention
come August, sustaining interest in the
presidential election through the primary season
and the summer months. Now, with the cast of
colorful contenders having dropped out and
Mitt Romney all but assured the GOP nomination,
viewers have lost interest, and cable news
ratings (especially CNN’s) are suffering.
With that in mind, B&C caught up with MSNBC
anchor Rachel Maddow at the Cable Show in
Boston last week, where she told us why election
coverage isn’t getting viewers, what to expect
from the conventions this summer and why she
is not betting on big audiences for the debates
this fall. An edited transcript follows.
The New York Times’ Nate Silver wrote
recently that we’re still in preseason in regard to the general
election, and that campaign stories lately have tended to be
trivial because voters aren’t paying attention. Do you agree?
Totally. I don’t think that voters are dumb, but I think that voters are
busy, and people do not think about voting until they have to start
thinking about who they’re voting for. Unless people are political
actors in some other way than just voting, there’s no reason really to
expect them to be engaged with this stuff in a deep way except when
something really big happens. And so far, nothing really big has happened.
So far, it’s just about figuring out who each of these guys is.
So if we’re in a fallow period now, when will we start to see
people pay attention again?
I think it’s the conventions and Labor Day. And I think the conventions
are maybe more important this year than they have been in
previous years. In 2008, particularly on the Democratic side, but
also a little bit on the Republican side, there was real character-driven
drama about who was going to be the nominee, and that made
people interested in what was going on. So the conventions were
the debut of Sarah Palin and some other stuff, but it was essentially
trying to put some drama on something people are already paying
attention to. Right now, nobody is paying attention. Cable news ratings
are down across the board. The less you talk about the election,
the more your ratings go up. The conventions are actually going to
have a narrative import this year that they did
not certainly have in ’08. That’s kind of exciting,
to know that a political event is going to be
As a TV anchor, are you trying to fi nd ways
to get the general viewer interested in the
election right now, or have you resigned
yourself to the fact that it is only political
junkies paying attention?
I don’t think about who my audience is that
much in terms of trying to come up with what
I am going to say. I always approach the day’s
news as what’s important and how can I explain
it. Honestly, sometimes the most important
stuff in the country—the stuff that requires
the most explanation in order to become useful
information for people—is not the stuff that’s in
the campaign. So I sort of approach it agnostically
every day, not knowing how much campaign stuff is going to
be in the news. There’s no assignment: You have to do X [amount of]
campaign coverage. Obviously, that wouldn’t even make sense at this
point since it’s not rating.
We did see the debates rate highly back during the primaries.
What level of viewership are you anticipating for the presidential
debates this fall?
I may be wrong—and I’m bad at predictions—but my sense is that
the reason people were watching the Republican debates is because
of that freaking cast of characters in the Republican debates. Romney
and Obama—even if you really like one of them or the other one—
you not only know who your guy is, you can pretty much predict
everything he’s going to say. And if you really dislike the other guy,
you know who he is and you can pretty much predict what he’s going
to say. So I expect that those debates will be substantive and useful to
people that want to pay attention to them, but I don’t think they’re
going to attract casual observers the way that the Republican debates
did, simply because the people in them were so sparky. The sense of
the unknown -- who knows what Herman Cain is going to say -- we’re
not going to have that in the general [election].