Why CNN, MSNBC Are Battling For a Second-Place Finish at 9 P.M.

When Jake Tapper launches his new primetime show on CNN Tuesday at 9 p.m., he will have to turn from the intensely serious (an interview with President Joe Biden) to the sublime (a chat with actor Dwayne Johnson). It will be just one of many pivots the anchor will have to make in days to come.

The version of “CNN Tonight” that Tapper will lead through the midterm elections aims to provide “thoughtful, no-bulls—t context” around some of the biggest stories in the news cycle, according to a person familiar with the matter, and won’t tether the journalist to the CNN programs for which he is known best, “The Lead” and “State of the Union.” Viewers should expect Tapper to focus on fewer stories and to spend more time digging into them, and to hold forth with newsmakers and heads of state as well as authors, actors and figures of popular culture.

The new show also represents the first big step that CNN has taken in months to try to parry with its rivals for primetime viewers. Since Chris Cuomo left the 9 p.m. roost late last year, the network has tested everyone from Michael Smerconish to Kasie Hunt in the slot. MSNBC’s adieu to Rachel Maddow all week at 9 p.m. may have given the network some cover to go slow.

In a different era, 9 p.m. was the big moment in cable news, the hour that lured the most eyeballs and boasted the medium’s most popular and often passionate anchors. Sean Hannity and Maddow, and, in more recent years, Cuomo, found themselves turned into the avatars of their respective networks. In 2022, with primetime ratings sagging in the aftermath of the last presidential election and the absence of President Trump in the White House, things are changing.

The most-watched show on cable news these days doesn’t even air during primetime. It’s “The Five,” the Fox News roundtable program that even includes a liberal panelist. As for passion, MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell is often more fiery than Maddow’s successor, Alex Wagner. Until last week, Don Lemon was perhaps the CNN host who veered closest to offering a little scorch during his segments — between 10 p.m. and midnight. He’s now moving to mornings.

Starting Tuesday night, Tapper will lead CNN into a battle that appears to focus more directly on beating MSNBC. Neither network can hope for better than second place.

No one thinks Tapper or Wagner, who has been anchoring 9 p.m. Tuesday through Friday on MSNBC, is going to lure more viewers than Fox News Channel’s Hannity. He won an average of 2.68 million viewers last quarter — a figure that handily trumps the 1.86 million viewers who tuned in for MSNBC’s 9 p.m. mix of Wagner and Rachel Maddow (who still hosts 9 p.m. on Mondays) or the 681,000 who watched “CNN Tonight” with a rotating anchor array.

So what’s at stake? For CNN and MSBNC, it’s about more than viewer bragging rights.

Both Tapper and Wagner are journalists who have tried, by and large, to stick to their knitting. Yes, Wagner has tried her hand at a host of unique activities, from editing a music magazine to hosting the Netflix reboot of “The Mole,” and Tapper has gone viral after taut question-and-answer sessions with candidate Donald Trump and Trump White House adviser Stephen Miller. But both seem more wedded to the business of telling viewers what’s going on rather than telling them what to think, not necessarily the hallmark of a cable-news show at 9.

The new choices at MSNBC and CNN seem like an attempt, perhaps, to take down the temperature. People familiar with Tapper’s primetime effort say it will not view stories through a partisan lens while displaying a “hypersensitivity” to talking points, misinformation and nonsense. These shows rise as more Americans distrust traditional news outlets than trust them. A 2019 study by Pew Research Center found, for example, that none of 30 different news sources is trusted by more than 50% of all U.S. adults. Thirteen of the outlets, which ranged from broadcast and cable news to the Huffington Post and The New York Times were trusted by at least 33% of Democrats, but only two were trusted by at least 33% of Republicans.

Others have tried to tone down posturing in TV news and have not been rewarded for it. Shepard Smith’s 7 p.m. program on CNBC delivers a solid hour of reporting that aims for that network’s economy-focused viewers. But it is not the dominant news offering in its hour. Likewise, Nexstar Media’s NewsNation lineup, predicated on giving viewers a non-partisan offering, is generating paltry numbers among the audience that news advertisers want most, people between 25 and 54.

Wagner is not luring in more viewers than her predecessor, Maddow. But she has been winning more than CNN has at 9 p.m. And she has also been generating more eyeballs than the roster of “MSNBC Prime” substitute anchors who filled in during the hour after Maddow ceded her Tuesday through Friday programs. According to Nielsen, viewership for “Alex Wagner Tonight” was up 33% in the third quarter among viewers between 25 and 54 over the “Prime” rotation in the second.

Among CNN executives, there is some hope Tapper will make 9 p.m. his permanent home, according to three people familiar with the matter. But the anchor, who has been happy working at 4 p.m. and moderating “State of the Union,” has not committed to stay beyond the midterms, wary of the effects a sustained primetime run might have on his personal life.

It’s not an uncommon concern. MSNBC’s Nicolle Wallace, who has a young child, expressed wariness of the same job when executives there were searching for a Maddow replacement, according to people familiar with that process, and one reason Megyn Kelly sought to exit the primetime lineup at Fox News was to carve out more time to see her young children.

Should Tapper decide to stick with the new show, it will give rise to a slew of other moves, including decisions about his afternoon hours. All he has to do is lure viewers who say they only want the facts from their news programming, but often forget to tune in when that’s exactly what’s offered.

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