On Tuesday night, with a minute to go until the polls closed in the battleground state of Virginia, the MSNBC hosts Rachel Maddow and Chris Matthews received word through their earpieces that the state was too close to call, according to the election analysts at MSNBC’s parent, NBC News.
“I think that’s pretty significant,” Mr. Matthews said, optimistically, as a commercial break wrapped up. Virginia, a state that had voted to elect a Democratic presidential candidate only once in 40 years — Barack Obama in 2008 — was not leaning toward Mitt Romney as some Republicans had predicted it would.
Inside the NBC “Sunday Night Football” studio that MSNBC was borrowing for the night, the stage manager loudly called out, “Here we go.” Ms. Maddow softly repeated, “Here we go,” and reported the news to three million viewers.
When President Obama won Virginia and most of the other battleground states on Tuesday night, ensuring himself a second term as president, some at MSNBC felt as if they had won as well.
During Mr. Obama’s first term, MSNBC underwent a metamorphosis from a CNN also-ran to the anti-Fox, and handily beat CNN in the ratings along the way. Now that it is known, at least to those who cannot get enough politics, as the nation’s liberal television network, the challenge in the next four years will be to capitalize on that identity.
MSNBC, a unit of NBCUniversal, has a long way to go to overtake the Fox News Channel, a unit of News Corporation: on most nights this year, Fox had two million more viewers than MSNBC.
But the two channels, which skew toward an audience that is 55 or older, are on average separated by fewer than 300,000 viewers in the 25- to 54-year-old demographic that advertisers desire. On three nights in a row after the election last week, MSNBC — whose hosts reveled in Mr. Obama’s victory — had more viewers than Fox in that demographic.
“We’re closer to Fox than we’ve ever been,” said Phil Griffin, the president of MSNBC, who has been trying to overtake Fox for years. “All of this is great for 2013, 2014 to keep building.”
In some ways MSNBC, which until 2005 was partly owned by Microsoft, is where Fox was a decade ago — in the early stages of profiting from its popularity. The channel receives a per-subscriber fee of 30 cents a month from cable operators; CNN receives twice that, and Fox News at least three times as much.
“When Microsoft was involved with MSNBC, it was viewed as kind of lacking in direction; I don’t think the channel had much leverage raising rates,” said Derek Baine, a senior analyst for SNL Kagan. “Maybe they will have some more leverage on this postelection.”
If Fox sees itself as the voice of the opposition to the president, MSNBC sees itself as the voice of Mr. Obama’s America. Its story resembles that of so many other cable channels. It hit on a winning strategy (antiwar liberalism led by Keith Olbermann at 8 p.m.), added similar shows (like Ms. Maddow’s at 9 p.m., which became the channel’s tent pole when Mr. Olbermann left in 2011) and then sold its audience as something more: a community of passionate, like-minded people.
Many progressives (and conservatives) now view the channel as a megaphone for liberal politicians, ideas and attacks against those who disagree. Such a megaphone — clearly marked, always on — has never existed before on television.
It has all happened rather suddenly. During the presidential election in 2008, Ms. Maddow was so new that she was still getting lost in the labyrinth of Rockefeller Center. And MSNBC was so timid about applying a political point of view that it paired an NBC News anchor, David Gregory, with the outspoken Mr. Olbermann on election night. The awkward pairing symbolized the split in American journalism between those who embodied a political point of view and those who said they did not.