MSNBC president: Ratings on rise because we give ‘smartest coverage out there’

MSNBC, which struggled for years following the reelection of President Obama, has been on a ratings tear of late, particularly since Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpDems win from coast to coast Falwell after Gillespie loss: 'DC should annex' Northern Virginia Dems see gains in Virginia's House of Delegates MORE's stunning electoral victory in November.

The Hill spoke with MSNBC President Phil Griffin about the ways the network as a whole is capturing a larger audience share at a time when political theater appears to be the most compelling thing on the airwaves.

Across all of basic cable, the network is fourth in total primetime viewers, behind only Fox News, Nickelodeon and HGTV, its best ranking in the network's 20-year history.

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Of all of MSNBC's ratings increases, the rise of Rachel Maddow in primetime has been most notable, as the 43-year-old Oxford Rhodes Scholar has enjoyed her highest ratings since 2008 for her 9 p.m. ET program "The Rachel Maddow Show."

"Nobody works harder than Rachel," Griffin said. "Rachel is a student. She is just a different kind of communicator. She weaves a story every day in that first 20 minutes of the show that connects dots, pulls things together, pulls historical references that really is just an amazing piece of work.

"And you come out of it smarter. It's as simple as that."

In terms of total audience, Maddow has dominated her time slot when matched up with CNN, beating MSNBC's cable news rival for 45 consecutive months. 

President Trump has attacked CNN more than any other broadcast news outlet, repeatedly calling it "fake news."

At a recent 77-minute press conference at the White House, Trump specifically mentioned CNN's 10 p.m. program at length ("CNN Tonight" hosted by Don Lemon), complaining about the show’s tone and negativity toward the administration.

But while CNN is a frequent target, MSNBC is rarely called out by the president.

"I wish he called us out once in awhile because it's like a promo for CNN all the time," Griffin joked.

"But look, all I know is, day to day, I think we're giving the most unique, smartest coverage out there," he continued, specifically pointing to “Morning Joe” and the channel's revamped news-focused daytime lineup, which was almost all exclusively opinion programming up from 2013-2015.

In February, the network grew its prime-time viewership by 63 percent when compared to February 2016, according to Nielsen Research. During the day, its program offerings are up 62 percent in total viewers versus last year.

MSNBC has continued its strong performance since Election Day, finishing No. 2 in total viewers among all cable networks in February while topping rival CNN for the third straight month in viewership, according to the Nielsen Research.

Griffin said the daytime change from opinion to more traditional news coverage was an imperative.

"I thought that was done out of necessity," Griffin explained. "But everything changed here. The NBC News Division beefed up. Everybody at NBC News works at MSNBC and NBC. And it gave our daytime an immediate lift, and we've been riding that and fine-tuning that ever since."

Like MSNBC, Fox News and CNN are also experiencing major bumps from Trump, as the new president has been more active, unpredictable and politically polarizing than almost anyone to ever assume the office.

For cable news regardless of network, that makes each day — to borrow an old NBC term — must-see-TV.

In past years, Fox News, MSNBC and CNN all experienced notable drops in viewers following presidential elections, after losing the drama of the campaign season. But the post-election Trump transition and rollercoaster early days of his presidency have been a boon for cable news and especially MSNBC, a network that struggled mightily in 2013 after producing relatively high numbers leading up to President Obama's re-election in 2012 to finish No. 2 that year. 

Griffin, 62, became MSNBC president nine years ago and has been with the network since its inception in 1996, having served as an executive producer of "Hardball with Chris Matthews" and the late "Countdown with Keith Olbermann."

He also masterminded programs such as "The Rachel Maddow Show," "The Last Word with Lawrence O'Donnell" and "Morning Joe."

Looking forward, he said things are changing so quickly with the new administration that it may be wise to stop and reflect periodically.

"We want to do specials, where it's the end of the month [we say], 'let's get a wide group of people to talk about the first month.' And clearly there's an appetite to do it," Griffin said. "One of the most amazing things about this presidency, five weeks into it, has felt like an eternity.

"You forget that first weekend when you forget about the inauguration speech that was quite disruptive," he continued. "Or the protests or the executive orders or the Russian connections or whatever, it's an amazing thing. So we regularly take a step back and review what's going on."

Griffin was referring to MSNBC's "Trump the First Month" special hosted by Maddow and Brian Williams that featured guests ranging from Chris Matthews and Katy Tur to Montel Williams.

The special beat formidable programming on CNN both in the total audience and the key 25-54 demo, which featured a live debate from Atlanta of those vying for the lead the Democratic National Committee.

”The reason this is so wild is no matter what you think of Donald Trump, he is unconventional. Every day, by noon, we are on to a different focus and topic. And strange things happen and we have to be on it, and fact check it, and look at the historical perspective, and see how the country taking it all in.”