The Trump presidency has been an unmitigated success for the major three cable news networks, which have all experienced a huge uptick in audience ratings over the last three and a half years.
But while Fox News has maintained its dominance over the industry by going heavy on pro-Trump commentary, MSNBC and CNN have benefited from prime-time opinion hosts who have taken the president and his administration to task on a nightly basis — not to mention viewer interest in the constant swirl of news emanating from the Trump White House.
So what happens at MSNBC and CNN if Trump loses? It might seem to be the most fervent hope of some of their pundits. But would a President Joe Biden be good for business?
“I think they’re going to feel very lost, because they are largely addicted to [Trump] at this point and that sense of chaos,” said Ariana Pekary, who left MSNBC in July 2020 after a nearly seven-year career that included serving as a producer for Lawrence O’Donnell’s evening show.
A former CNN anchor argued that after years of challenging Trump, “a Biden win could have a devastating impact on their bottom line.”
CNN officially disagrees. As a global journalistic enterprise that is oriented around covering breaking news, a CNN insider said the network will still have plenty of massive stories to aggressively cover, even if Biden wins — with the continued devastation wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic at the top of the list. “That, on its own, will be a big draw for cable news in 2021,” the person said.
An MSNBC insider also expressed confidence that a Biden presidency would keep the network’s journalists and commentators busy, mentioning the pandemic, racial justice and a potentially dicey transfer of political power as key issues.
Andrew Tyndall, a television industry analyst, said that viewer interest in the pandemic could initially obscure a ratings drop that might come from the Trump-to-Biden transition. “That’s not going to change in the medium term, whatever the result of the election is,” he said.
With the recent appointment of Joy Reid, a liberal former political activist, as MSNBC’s 7 p.m. host, the network’s daily lineup isn’t likely to change in a significant way.
But, viewers might see fewer guest contributions from the stable of Never-Trump Republicans — Steve Schmidt and Charlie Sykes, for examples — who have become fan favorites, even among liberal viewers, for their passionate critiques of the president. “I don’t know how they will play in a post-Trump era,” Pekary said. If they start taking swipes at a new Democratic president, she predicted, “they will find themselves on air fewer and fewer times.”
The network’s biggest Never-Trump success story is former George W. Bush administration staffer Nicolle Wallace, who excelled as a 4 p.m. host before being given a second daily hour in August, securing her place as one of MSNBC’s biggest stars. The question that industry watchers are asking is whether Wallace would lose appeal to left-leaning viewers if she emerges as a critic of a President Biden.
Over on CNN, Don Lemon has become one of the network’s voices of reason, a nightly check on the morality and real-world impact of Donald Trump’s policies. His show follows that of Chris Cuomo, who has engaged in rhetorical fistfights with Trump’s defenders and enablers. (A Republican who appears on CNN thinks it sometimes seems the network has been “trying to out-MSNBC MSNBC.”)
While Lemon is reliably progressive, Cuomo fashions himself as a nonpartisan truth-teller who would likely seek to cover a Biden administration aggressively — even if his critics on the right might accuse him of being in the tank for a Democratic president.
One thing that seems unlikely is that the network would have to hire pro-Biden contributors in the same way that it hired a long train of pro-Trump contributors who were brought on to do battle with liberal contributors — and often the network’s hosts and anchors. In 2020, former Sen. Rick Santorum, an establishment Republican, has emerged as the network’s go-to “other side” commentator, providing a more palatable perspective for liberal viewers.
Tyndall sees a Trump loss as having serious programming consequences for CNN and MSNBC. “If Donald Trump is defeated, they’ve really got to rethink their formulas,” he said. “And I cannot see how they continue to have eye-catching TV in the same way … There’s a TV phenomenon. There’s a draw. They are both dependent on him.”
“Biden is just a much more boring character than Donald Trump is,” said George Washington University’s Frank Sesno, a former CNN bureau chief. “If the Trump show isn’t the Trump show anymore, and it’s the Biden show, where are the applause lines and laugh lines?”