It’s fair to say MSNBC had a “Hardball” problem. Perhaps it wasn’t just the one everyone was talking about.
Chris Matthews’ growing series of on-air gaffes in the midst of intensifying coverage of the 2020 campaign made keeping him on the air difficult for MSNBC executives, as did a litany of troubling stories about his behavior toward female guests on set and behind the scenes. Yet the show itself, based on a concept that worked in the late 1990s, was also becoming outdated.
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Matthews had a long tenure as a top political insider, working as a speechwriter for President Jimmy Carter and chief of staff for the very influential Tip O’Neill when he was the Speaker of the House. But he gained early momentum in TV as an occasional panelist on :”The McLaughlin Group,” whose host, John McLaughlin, helped blaze a trail for programming led by a moderator who wasn’t afraid to butt in; who made nicknames for his panelists part of the show; and who viewed political discussion as a sort of combat theater for Beltway aficionados.
Chris Matthews carried on many of those traditions. On “Hardball,” his pugnacious enthusiasm for politics often got the better of him, prompting him to interrupt his guests, or at the very least, talk over them as they tried to respond to his questions and provocations. This wasn’t some persona he played on air. Matthews had a palpable love for talking about the political game, and often could not stop himself from chatting endlessly about it. Some interviews with him could turn into monologues.
And while “The McLaughlin Group” recently returned without its titular host, who passed away in 2016, “Hardball” continued in much the same way it had over the years since Matthews got his own show on the now-defunct “America’s Talking,” the cable network that was eventually transformed into MSNBC.
That isn’t the format MSNBC has been most enthusiastic about in recent years. Behind the scenes, executives at the network and in the upper echelons at NBCUniversal have kept an eye on both Brian Williams’ “The 11th Hour” and Nicolle Wallace’s “Deadline: The White House.” Both shows keep the “salon” concept of a host juggling multiple guests burnished by “McLaughlin” and “Hardball,”, but with a significant twist: Wallace and Williams make their contributors the stars of the segments, praising their credentials and their proximity to the swirl around whatever topic might be under discussion.
Williams gives considerable time to telling viewers about his guests’ backgrounds, the details of which are printed upon cards he carries with him to his anchor desk. Wallace takes so much pride in her bookings that she spends precious time after her broadcasts tweeting out clips from her program and thanking the guest at the center of each one.
There may be other reasons to put “Hardball” in the shed. In 2019, the show ranked third in the key audience demographic favored by advertisers, people between 25 and 54. According to Nielsen, “Hardball’s” tally in the category fell below that of time-slot rivals “The Story with Martha MacCallum” on Fox News Channel and “Erin Burnett Outfront” on CNN.
Guessing who might eventually take over the “Hardball” slot is easy. Anyone who likes can take a look at the MSNBC daytime schedule and throw their favorite anchor into the mix.
But there is some reason to consider Wallace, whose 4 p.m. ratings in the demo were tied with those of time-slot competitor Jake Tapper in 2019, but who had a bigger overall audience than either CNN’s Tapper or her other rival, Fox News Channel’s Neil Cavuto (Cavuto had better numbers in the 25-to-54 audience). MSNBC executives have mulled the idea of expanding her “White House” to two hours, and a rejiggering of the schedule could use Matthews’ hour to do that (providing Wallace wants to work a later schedule).
There has been some press speculation about MSNBC weekend host Joy Reid taking the role, and that is certainly possible, as Reid has filled in for many of the network’s primetime hosts. But Reid’s “A.M. Joy” is one of MSNBC’s best-performing shows on weekends, where the network is placing more emphasis on programming in an effort to beat CNN in the demo.
MSNBC has also been in early talks with former Fox News Channel anchor Shepard Smith about a potential role, and Matthews’ departure would seem to provide an opening the two might find worth discussing. Smith’s non-compete with Fox News is expected to come to an end in June or July. MSNBC is at present expected to fill the 7 p.m. hour with various anchors.
No matter who ends up with the slot, it’s a fair bet the “Hardball” format won’t continue with them. Like “Crossfire,” the long-running CNN staple that pit blue versus red for more than two decades, the show had its moment in the sun. If an anchor should emerge who can take an aggressive stance like Matthews and bring the audience along once again, well, perhaps MSNBC will take another swing.
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