Just a year ago today, MSNBC, recovering from a long period of “Leaning Forward,” found itself struggling to stay on its feet.
On the heels of a disastrous 2014 that saw ratings hit a seven-year low — even president Phil Griffin admitted it was a “difficult year” — the left-leaning cable news network was preparing a massive restructuring of his channel and a realigning of the talent.
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Completely canceled were four shows along with their anchors: The Cycle, The Ed Show, Now with Alex Wagner, and Ronan Farrow Daily (though two hosts, Farrow and The Cycle co-host Ari Melber are still with the network in other roles). Politics Nation with Al Sharpton lost its prestigious weekday slot, demoted to just once a week on Sunday mornings at 8 am. Joy Reid also lost her weekday show, but with weekend host Melissa Harris-Perry leaving the network over complaints about how she was treated and racial insensitivity, Reid has taken over the weekend two-hour slot with her own show, “AM Joy.”
In were more down-the-middle NBC News journalists like Meet the Press host Chuck Todd and former “Nightly News” anchor Brian Williams.
Sitting in his third-floor corner office overlooking Rockefeller Plaza in New York on a rainy day in early May, Griffin boasted that the crisis has passed: MSNBC is succeeding as it rebrands from a place to “lean forward” to the place for in-depth news coverage, without fully shedding a progressive bent defined by opinionated, unabashedly liberal hosts like Rachel Maddow.
“The defining elements of who we are is, giving real depth to the stories were covering,” Griffin said before offering an unmistakable jab at CNN, now helmed by his former NBC colleague Jeff Zucker.
“We’ve got some other plans we’re going to do, but they’re not based on following a single plane crash for three months,” he said.
But in reality, change at the cable channel have been coming at a slow drip over the last 12 months, and now network executives want to show what they’ve done.
They’re doing that this week, unveiling a new campaign that showcases its talent roster —sometimes in unexpected ways. Four feature advertisements shot by the well-known celebrity and glossy magazine photographer Art Streiber will feature group portraits of four groups of MSNBC talent: “Pros,” including Andrea Mitchell and Chuck Todd; “The Codebreakers,” including Chris Hayes and Lawrence O’Donnell; the “Road Warriors,” featuring campaign trail reporters like Katy Tur and Jacob Soboroff; and “The Firebrands” which will feature only Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski, co-hosts of “Morning Joe,” the channel’s signature morning show.
In what is perhaps the network’s most overt symbol of the new tone, however, is another ad that will run in some conservative and mainstream outlets. The ad features some of MSNBC’s conservative and Republican contributors — like radio host Hugh Hewitt, GOP consultant Steve Schmidt and former RNC chairman Michael Steele — with a cheeky message: “People might start accusing us of leaning too far to the right.”
Griffin cast the rebranding as just one more stage in MSNBC’s “evolution.”
“MSNBC will turn 20 this year on July 15,” he said. “There have been so many evolutions, and look if you don’t evolve, in any medium, you’re going to lose. So I think we’ve been in a process of evolution and I feel very good about what we’re doing.”
Griffin has a ratings bump to back him up: Though it usually trails CNN and is far behind ratings powerhouse Fox News, the first quarter of 2016 was the network’s most watched in more than three years, with its daytime viewership up by triple digits. “Morning Joe” experienced a 77 percent increase in overall viewership from the 2015 first quarter average, and an 83 percent increase in the coveted 25-to-54-year-old demographic, and has beaten CNN in the 6 a.m. – 9 a.m. time period every single day in April and May. Primetime is also seeing improvements: MSNBC beat CNN in the demo 5 out of 20 weeknights and won total viewers 13 out of 20 week nights in April. The network also beat CNN in total viewership in primetime for two consecutive weeks in May.
“The great thing about MSNBC is we cover the big stories the way no one else really does. Not only from every side – from the political angle, business angle, legal angle – but that we take you there to the and we give it a fuller understanding,” Griffin said. “We like to say we connect the dots around here. I think we’ve done a far better job in the last year of really making sure we maybe do fewer stories but give fuller understanding to them.”
The evolution has extended into those conservatives who show up on MSNBC. Sen. Ted Cruz, Gov. John Kasich, Sen. Marco Rubio and Donald Trump all participated in interviews and town halls on MSNBC this election cycle. (The same can be said to an extent about Fox News, which hosted both Sen. Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton in a town hall this year.)
The “leaning right” ad is the culmination of the network’s efforts to prove that MSNBC is not just a home for liberals, but of opinionated analysis from all sides.
MSNBC, despite its liberal lean, has taken heat from right and left for seeming at times to cozy up to Trump – with Scarborough and his co-host Mika Brzezinski under particular scrutiny for lobbing softball questions to him at a February town hall, like “Why did you decide to run for president?” Journalists such as CNN’s Dylan Byers have also reported on the warm personal ties between the “Morning Joe” co-hosts and their ostensible sparring partner, and the internal discomfort that has caused among some at the network.
Griffin shrugged off the criticisms, pointing out that Scarborough’s coverage has clearly evolved over time (the week of our interview, Trump and Scarborough were in the midst of a Twitter spat), as has his relationship with Trump.
“Oh my goodness. Look, they’re on every day. They’re an open book,” Griffin said, clearly exasperated, saying that “early on” Scarborough and Brzezinski noted that Trump could easily win the nomination (as they repeatedly remind their viewers). “A lot of people want to criticize him or whatever they did but that’s going to happen …. Joe does what Joe does everyday. He analyzes the situation and look, clearly people respect him because he’s often right. So no I don’t pay any – look, being in television, particularly in cable, everyone has an opinion so I’ll just leave it at that.”
His elevator pitch on the new MSNBC feels something like a mashup of its competitors CNN and Fox News: straight news during the day, with a “surround the story” approach, capped at night by opinionated liberal hosts; he acknowledges that the numbers rising with all the other boats on the wings of an insane election cycle is giving MSNBC cover while the channel tests out new show formats and new relationships with politicians, among other things.
“We actually evolved during the election itself. We made the commitment about a year ago right now that we were going to embrace NBC News on MSNBC during the day, that we’re much stronger together and be as competitive on day-to-day news as anyone,” Griffin said in the hour-long interview. “Cover the big stories give them depth, get out of the studio where the news is being made, and talk to the people who are making the news and places where it’s happening. I think it’s been very effective. We’ve created this really effective dynamic daytime that has fueled the sense of the new MSNBC.” (More change is expected later this week to the daytime approach with new leadership, as Griffin teased in a memo to staff last week.)
When the network revamped daytime, many expected primetime, made up of hosts Hayes, Maddow, O’Donnell and Chris Matthews, to be next in line for a restructuring, with most eyes on Hayes’ lower-rated though critically acclaimed show. (Hayes was the only MSNBC show to win a News & Documentary Emmy last year.)
But Griffin said there are no changes coming to primetime, at least not before the election.
“There are no plans right now (to change primetime). By the way, we’ve got a monster six to eight months ahead of us, so we’re pretty focused,” Griffin said.
There is perhaps no more perfect example of MSNBC’s identity mashup than its primary-night coverage, which features Williams, in all his square-jawed, perfectly coiffed old-school newsmanliness, and Maddow, the progressive host and lynchpin of MSNBC’s primetime lineup.
Griffin defended the Maddow-Williams election night pairing with a simple “it works,” calling Williams an anchor with “knowledge” and “authority” while calling Maddow one of the “smartest analysts in the business.”
“Rachel is our keystone and I think there’s more reporting going on on [“The Rachel Maddow Show”] than just [about] any show on television. She does really original thinking every night. It’s sort of a model, not for her sensibility but her ability to connect the dots and go deep and explain things — that’s what people love about MSNBC in general,” Griffin said.
Maddow is, without question, the network’s primetime lynchpin, especially in the ratings – where in the first quarter her show was up 92 percent in the demo and 48 percent overall (she’s also the center star, and only one seated in “The Pros” ad MSNBC is debuting). But former CNN President Jonathan Klein warned that the lineup needs to have more than just Maddow as the star.
“The challenge for them now is if you’re going to pursue that strategy you need the talent to surround Rachel with. You’ve got to take advantage of the audience Rachel can generate coming out of her show, and that’s where they’ve struggled,” Klein said.
Griffin bristled at the idea that MSNBC’s primetime lineup is at odds with delivering hard news during the day, likening it to a newspaper’s “op-ed page” and noting that the opinion hosts often have reporters on to discuss the day’s developments on the campaign trail.
And he repeatedly cited Maddow and her coverage of the Flint water crisis as the perfect synergy of in-depth reporting from a liberal, progressive perspective and noted that Matthews’ interview with Donald Trump – in which Trump made big news when he said women should be “punished” for having abortions – was one of the biggest interviews with the presumptive Republican nominee this cycle.
Of course, CNN and Fox News are also seeing their ratings skyrocket this election cycle, so it’s not yet clear whether the channel’s new focus has anything to do with the ratings rise. Griffin readily admitted that the election has been a boon to MSNBC, both in ratings and in the opportunity to test new formats.
Griffin was also adamant that the new strategy would not mean MSNBC would look more and more like competitor CNN. Taking full advantage of one of the most exciting election cycles in decades, MSNBC executives have not only played around with their schedule and format, they have also elevated a particular group of young correspondents who will be part of the future of the network, Griffin said. The group, all young 20- to 30-somethings, have been embedded with the campaigns and recently began to be showcased in their special feature called “Road Warriors,” where four correspondents dish about their respective campaign beats.
“Hallie Jackson, Katy Tur, Kasie Hunt, Jacob Soboroff, Kristen Welker, Steve Kornacki. These are the faces that have emerged in this election and I’d challenge you to find any network who has a third as many people who have emerged as real players and identifiable reporters as this group has become,” Griffin said.
But Griffin said he also recognizes that the great storyline of the election ends in November – and that’s where the real test for the new MSNBC begins, and the networks can start to differentiate themselves from each othe rmore.
“I do think the big change we’re going to have as we go into the post-election [period] is that we know on these stories if it’s big enough, flood the zone with reporters, try to get every angle on it, give it depth and meaning, get out of the standard reading scripts in the newsroom and report out in the field, and that’s going to be our mantra throughout,” Griffin said. “So there’s a rhythm throughout what we do and it took a while. This is all pretty new in the last year.”
Ultimately though, MSNBC’s future after its reconstruction won’t be so much up to its hosts or reporters.
“It’s on us. You can’t just sit back and expect [the viewer] to come to you. You’ve got to earn their trust and earn their respect and their interest. And I think we’ve done a good job of that,” Griffin said.
There are few places for MSNBC to go but up. At the time the reboot began last March, the network had fallen behind HLN in the ratings race, and NBCUniversal executives were telling POLITICO that its lineup was a “death wish.”
“They’re starting from such a low base a year ago that they’re bound to continue to improve,” Klein said.