For Solace and Solidarity in the Trump Age, Liberals Turn the TV Back On

Michael M. Grynbaum and John Koblin, New York Times, March 12, 2017

Bill Maher

Liberal TV personality Bill Maher. (Credit Image: © Roger Askew/Rex Features/ZUMA Wire)

There is a new safe space for liberals in the age of President Trump: the television set.

Left-leaning MSNBC, after flailing at the end of the Obama years, has edged CNN in prime time. Stephen Colbert’s openly anti-Trump “Late Show” is beating Jimmy Fallon’s “Tonight” for the first time. Bill Maher’s HBO flock has grown nearly 50 percent since last year’s presidential primaries, and “The Daily Show” has registered its best ratings since Jon Stewart left in 2015.

Traditional television, a medium considered so last century, has watched audiences drift away for the better part of a decade. Now rattled liberals are surging back, seeking catharsis, solidarity and relief.

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Last month, Rachael Maddow of MSNBC was watched by more viewers than at any time in the nine-year run of her show.

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Instead, the old analog favorites are in, with comfort-food franchises like “Saturday Night Live” drawing its highest Nielsen numbers in 24 years. Despite a dizzying array of new media choices, viewers are opting for television’s mass gathering spots, seeking the kind of shared experience that can validate and reassure.

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Uncertainty and tumult have long driven ratings, and the interest is bipartisan. Fox News, already cable’s highest-rated network, is having another big year: In February, its prime-time viewership was up another 31 percent from a year ago.

One-fifth of the 48 million people who watched Mr. Trump’s address to Congress two weeks ago did so on Fox.

But MSNBC’s growth has outpaced its rivals — its prime-time audience in February was up 55 percent from a year ago — a striking turnaround for a channel once considered the also-ran of cable news.

The network has beaten CNN in total weekday prime-time viewers for six of the last seven months. (CNN still outranks MSNBC in prime time among the advertiser-friendly audience of adults ages 25 to 54.)

At MSNBC headquarters in New York on a recent weeknight, the mood was energized. Ms. Maddow sprinted down a low-ceilinged hallway minutes before her 9 o’clock airtime; the anchor was late for makeup after fine-tuning a 20-minute monologue on Russian meddling in the election. (Generous by cable news standards, the segment still spilled over its allotted time.)

Rachel Maddow

Rachel Maddow

It was a day after a Maddow milestone: Her Wednesday show outranked that of her Fox News counterpart, Tucker Carlson, in total audience and the coveted 25-to-54 demographic.

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“There is this surge in civic interest and engagement,” Ms. Maddow said as she sprawled in a chair in her cluttered Rockefeller Plaza office, where the tip of an Emmy Award poked out of a metal beer pail. “It feels like a spontaneous, organic, pretty broad-based, heterogeneous, energized, constructive force, and it’s been interesting to me to see it happen everywhere.”

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In some ways, television is the last mass medium that Americans turn to en masse in uncertain times. “It is a place where we congregate,” said Martin Kaplan, director of the Norman Lear Center for media and society at the University of Southern California. “We all gather around that hearth to know what’s going on out there, and be comforted by the people who come on our screens to say, things will be all right.”

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Viewing habits seem to reflect the increasingly polarized state of the nation. Cable news, with its sharp punditry, is seeing huge ratings, but viewership for the strait-laced network evening newscasts is falling, along with that of general-interest morning shows. CNN, once the buttoned-up straight man of cable news, has embraced its role as foil to Mr. Trump, with anchors like Jake Tapper delivering aggressive interviews and commentary on the administration.

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At Rockefeller Plaza, Ms. Maddow was asked if it felt odd to be enjoying a major career moment thanks to the election of a president whose policies she loathes.

“I don’t feel like a winner right now, if that’s what you’re getting at,” she said. “I don’t feel like, ‘Score! Let’s hope for even more senior diplomats to get fired!’”

“Like, God, no,” Ms. Maddow added, turning serious. “I am not hoping for it to get worse.”

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