What caused MSNBC's dismal month?

After emerging as a threat to Fox News, the liberal network has taken a big step back

The Rachel Maddow Show was bested by Fox's Sean Hannity and CNN's Piers Morgan.
(Image credit: Virginia Sherwood)

MSNBC chief Phil Griffin recently said he wanted to beat Fox News, the undisputed king of cable news, by 2014. But he might want to give himself some more time — not only did MSNBC lose out to Fox News and CNN this month, it also found itself trailing CNN's trashier cousin, HLN.

In May, MSNBC's primetime ratings dropped 20 percent from the same time last year. The network also suffered its worst single week — May 13 to 17 — since 2006. How did MSNBC suddenly find itself in a ratings nosedive?

High-profile trials and breaking news. HLN's bread and butter is lurid crime. With Jodi Arias on trial, the network saw its afternoon ratings skyrocket by 111 percent.

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Big, breaking stories are usually when people turn to CNN. There were were several in May — including the Oklahoma tornado and the Cleveland kidnapping case — which might explain the network's 70 percent jump in primetime ratings from 2012.

That leaves the talking heads. Fox News experienced modest growth and some small losses across several demographics, but still came out on top when it came to total viewers.

If conservatives are still tuning in to watch Sean Hannity and Bill O'Reilly, why aren't liberals turning on MSNBC to watch their progressive counterparts?

One theory is that while Fox News has the IRS and Benghazi scandals to rile up conservatives, MSNBC's liberal viewers are bored. Here's The American Prospect's Paul Waldman:

Enough has happened that liberals' ideas about President Obama are complex and ambivalent. The next election seems a long way off. Republicans have succeeded in ginning up some faux-scandals, but none of them seems a real threat to the President, so they don't look worth getting too worked up over. So is it any surprise that liberals don't feel the need to read 20 blogs a day and watch five hours of cable news? [American Prospect]

Another reason MSNBC seems to be tanking is because viewers aren't all in with Chris Hayes. His new 8 p.m. show attracted 32 percent fewer total viewers than its predecessor, The Ed Show, did a year ago. That weak lead-in didn't help Rachel Maddow, who saw her ratings drop to their lowest level since 2008, the year her show began.

Hayes' loss turned out to be Anderson Cooper's gain, who saw his competing 8 p.m. show climb 99 percent in total viewers.

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Keith Wagstaff is a staff writer at TheWeek.com covering politics and current events. He has previously written for such publications as TIME, Details, VICE, and the Village Voice.