MSNBC’s POV Metamorphosis: How a Cable News Network is Becoming a Cable POV Network
(Editor’s Note: This was originally going to be a two part chronological article but was reworked to move most of the older history to two Appendices which are referenced in this article)
By the end of 2010, MSNBC had established a solid POV block from 5pm to 11pm and had the equally successful POV Morning Joe airing from 6-9. Dayside had reverted to straight news after sustaining a radical wholesale quasi-POV overhaul in mid 2009 which didn’t work out as planned (see Appendix B).
But while MSNBC President Phil Griffin told the AP in December of 2009 that MSNBC was going back to “more aggressive headline and information programming”, by early 2010 the re-implemented straight news dayside had ratings issues. By May Mediaite’s Steve Krakauer wrote that MSNBC was on a path to its worst dayside demo year since 1999.
Whether there was a direct correlation between dayside’s lagging numbers and what happened next is not known. What is known now is that 2010 would be a year when Griffin and MSNBC would revisit the concept of expanding POV across MSNBC. This is the story of that second attempt; a process that is still ongoing.
There were small indications here and there that Griffin was experimenting with dayside in early 2010 but nothing you could define a trend out of. The most telling sign that Griffin was again seriously considering extending POV across all of MSNBC came in the form of an NBC News viewer survey that leaked and was forwarded to ICN in June 2010. Quoting from that story I wrote about the survey…
Note the “I enjoy programs with an opinionated host rather than a program which presents me with just the facts of a story with an objective anchor” and the “I prefer news sources that share my point of view” and the “I enjoy news programs that have a host that has a point of view or opinion on the issues being discussed” choices. Add that to the “Anchor with a strong point of view” choice mentioned earlier and you start to wonder what NBC is thinking about in regards to MSNBC. It suggests to me that they’re still mulling going down that opinion dayside news path even after last year’s resounding ratings-reflective rebuke of a previous attempt at putting in POV anchors and shows on the dayside air. They wouldn’t be asking about these subjects if they weren’t still mulling doing yet another 180.
That survey now serves as MSNBC’s “Rosetta Stone” for everything POV that has transpired on the network since.
One of the things I believe Griffin learned from the failure in 2009 was that he didn’t follow the blueprint of his successful approach to primetime. With primetime Griffin had been deliberate and incremental, bordering on sloth-like. It took him nearly two years to go from just Olbermann at 8 to a fully leftward POV 3 hour primetime; the complete opposite of what he tried to do in 2009 when he made most of his changes at the same time.
Griffin himself seemed to acknowledge this in an October 2010 New York Magazine article by Gabriel Sherman…
To throw things up, which we did for many years and see if it sticks, is not a strategy. And I’ll never do it again,” he tells me. “It’s too painful.
So, for POV attempt #2 Griffin would return to the methodical approach of changing only parts of MSNBC dayside at a time and the changes would be more gradual. And there would be an accompanying branding for it which itself would methodically and gradually change over time.
In October of 2010 MSNBC announced that branding campaign. It was called Lean Forward. At its debut there was considerable head scratching over the meaning of Lean Forward and how it related to MSNBC but, in truth, Lean Forward as a brand was relatively innocuous at the time. The first TV ads were generic “big sky” productions. More specific ads involving select members of MSNBC’s talent were similarly vague with nobody sticking their necks out regarding anything in particular. Even MSNBC’s POV stars came across tame. It was merely the starting point for something bigger.
2011 would be the year Griffin’s second attempt at extending POV to as much of MSNBC as possible would begin in earnest.
In February of 2011 Martin Bashir’s show debuted. The consensus expectation based on the information at hand (read: nothing to go on whatsoever) was that it would probably be some kind of news or newsmaker program. Bashir had spent many years at ABC’s Nightline where he had demonstrated little disposition towards POV programming. However, when The Martin Bashir show did debut that consensus expectation proved to be wildly off the mark. It was a POV analysis news program with Bashir revealing a progressive bent while making little editorials at the end of the show. It would be another year before MSNBC would publicly confirm that Bashir’s show was indeed a POV show.
To fill the slot vacated by Cenk Uygur’s acrimonious departure, MSNBC hired Al Sharpton in late summer 2011. It was already well established that 3-11pm was POV time on MSNBC but Sharpton’s hiring was seen by most as a POV escalation beyond what would have been contemplated previously. Suddenly the media writers, many of whom had been demonstrating a dogged display of resigned indifference to what Griffin had been attempting to do on MSNBC with POV the previous years, snapped to attention with the announcement of Sharpton’s hire. A bunch of articles came out questioning MSNBC’s selection of a lightning rod with as much controversial history as Sharpton.
Griffin, for his part, remained defiant about Sharpton’s rightful place in MSNBC’s stable telling NPR’s David Folkenflik…
“I’m a big fan of Rev. Sharpton; I’ve known him quite a bit,” Griffin says. “He’s smart. He’s entertaining. He’s experienced. He’s thoughtful. He’s provocative — [he's] all the things that I think MSNBC is.”
This new incremental approach Griffin took with expanding POV analysis in both scope and tone; first with Bashir’s show and then with the high profile Sharpton signing, continued to be applied throughout 2011 and into 2012.
For the first time Griffin expanded POV analysis into the weekend; first with Up with Chris Hayes in September 2011 and then later on adding to the new weekend POV branding with Melissa Harris-Perry in early 2012. Alex Witt’s news block was branded for the first time but its duration was nearly halved. In November 2011 Griffin added another POV analysis show to M-Fr dayside with the debut of Now with Alex Wagner.
From the beginning of 2011 to the date of this writing, MSNBC has added four different POV analysis shows (excluding Sharpton’s which was a like for like program swap) translating into a total net loss of 15 hours of straight news. But that didn’t mean that the remaining news hours were off limits from Griffin’s POV extension strategy.
It’s not clear when it started but the word was spreading throughout the newsroom and the message was clear; edgier, more provocative, POV style oriented newscasts were now a goal again. The days of not voicing any opinion on anything which, according to Felix Gillette in the New York Oberver, was ordered from on high after the Olbermann/Matthews mess of 2008 (see Appendix A), were apparently over.
The form which this new format would take was far subtler than what normally passes for POV in primetime but the difference was noticeable. More controversial guests were booked setting up the possibility of more back and forth confrontation with the anchors. Segment topic selection moved away from pure news and towards more incendiary red meat political subject matter. Anchors were encouraged to inject themselves into the discussion; to get with the POV brand Griffin viewed as the key to MSNBC’s future success.
The follow through to this new policy was and is uneven; some news hours have displayed it more flagrantly than others and some news anchors have appeared more predisposed to doing it than others. ICN has heard that there has been consternation in the newsroom regarding this POV/opinion push but that it was what Griffin wanted. And, after all, Griffin runs MSNBC.
Now, given these conditions, take a moment and put yourself in the position of an MSNBC news anchor.
You were trained to be a journalist and use those skills as a news anchor, not trained to be someone who takes and voices positions on the air. But what are you going to do? You’re seeing POV analysis shows popping up all over the place on MSNBC now. If you resist Griffin’s new edgier POV style ideas are you risking your career at the network? Say you get dropped by the network because of that…who is going to take you? The sad fact is if you’re not a big name you have little chance of jumping over to CNN, FNC, ABC, or CBS. If you stood any chance at NBC you would already know because NBC News President Steve Capus wouldn’t have let you get dropped in the first place. There is little demand now for interchangeable cog anchors. Those days are over and they’re not coming back. But you already knew that. Your only viable anchor option now appears to be local. Of course you can try becoming a network reporter, if that’s what you want. But it isn’t, is it? If you want to remain viable on the national anchor stage, maybe going along with what Griffin wants isn’t such a bad idea under the circumstances.
But, on the other hand, if you do go along doing what Griffin wants are you risking committing career suicide on the national level and will you only be employable on MSNBC…for as long as they choose to keep you? You are almost guaranteed to wind up in on air situations that make you look bad and/or notorious because of the edgier POV style Griffin wants you to take on. You should have a thick skin because you will become a regular name calling fixture of NewsBusters and all the Red blogs. If you had any future possibilities of moving over to NBC you have now put them at risk because, for the moment, NBC News isn’t going the POV route Griffin is and your new reputation will follow you over there and dog them. You’d become Kryptonite for CNN because it still hasn’t shown much inclination to want edgy POV on their newscasts. You’d become Kryptonite for FNC on the theory that someone who stakes out Progressive POV positions on MSNBC’s air would be an unacceptable news anchor choice for that network…one Shepard Smith is enough. You would be poison for CBS and ABC. Forget about being a network reporter…your rep is mud. Your only viable anchor option now appears to be local.
Basically, for lack of better words, no matter which direction you choose to go you’re screwed.
So I’m not surprised when I see someone like Thomas Roberts, who joined MSNBC as a straight news anchor with a straight news reputation, humiliate a guest who didn’t show up even though it turned out it was MSNBC’s fault she didn’t show up, and then when she did show up the next day he opened the interview with this…
“Maggie, do you defend your own race-baiting to further bigotry and homophobia on a national level?”
I was angry with what Roberts did at the time because I found it journalistically appalling but after thinking about it, given that Catch-22 scenario that now confronts him as an MSNBC anchor, I now better comprehend his predicament and I empathize with him.
With POV now seeping its way into MSNBC’s “newscasts” and POV analysis shows popping up all over the schedule, the network’s Lean Forward branding campaign evolved to better reflect what was coming over its airwaves.
As noted earlier, the first round of Lean Forward TV adds were tame and didn’t do much more than introduce the network’s talent to the masses. But beginning in 2011 MSNBC started unveiling Lean Forward: Revision Two.
Unlike the previous round of ads, these new ads were all POV themed ads, save for Morning Joe’s two minute long Lean Forward ad. While POV Lean Forward ads for MSNBC’s POV stars like Maddow and the others would seem to be a more reflective and necessary portrait than the first round of comparatively innocuous ads, POV stars would not be the only ones making POV Lean Forward ads.
Some of MSNBC’s journalists have made such POV ads. Tamron Hall made two; one complaining about the use of US troops as political pawns and another talking about income inequality.
More shocking was Andrea Mitchell’s new Lean Forward ad. Remember, it was Mitchell who, according to Felix Gillette’s Observer piece, was the one who stood up to voice concerns to GE and NBC brass about the wild POV style of the Olbermann/Matthews 2008 campaign coverage and how it was a problem for MSNBC and NBC News. But now, here’s Mitchell doing a POV Lean Forward ad regarding the contentious and debated topic of voter suppression and the groups allegedly pushing it. Et tu, Andrea?
Then there was this recent albeit now infamous quote from Griffin to the Tampa Bay Times’ Eric Deggans…
“I’m sorry, I don’t care about journalists. … I want fair-minded, smart people who understand the world and can interpret it,” he said. “If they’re journalists, great. This notion that you somehow you have to have done something to earn so-called journalists’ credentials? Stop.”
This quote was wildly interpreted out of context. Griffin was specifically rebutting the idea that Sharpton wasn’t qualified to host a show because he wasn’t a journalist and I agree with that. You don’t need to be a journalist to do POV. But everyone seized on the “I don’t care about journalists” part without understanding the rest.
What Griffin wants from MSNBC is edgy POV style analysis in his shows. He has determined that this is MSNBC’s future. This is MSNBC’s brand. Whether it is a journalist that adheres to this brand or a non-journalist that adheres to it is irrelevant (thus the “I don’t care about journalists” quip). Just adhere to it. There is no firewall at MSNBC between POV and news anchoring. It’s now a mish-mash of POV and news analysis that has spread across all dayparts. Actual hour long newscasts no longer exist except during heavy news cycles or select breaking news situations. And I have seen more than once when the network gave short shrift to breaking news situations and would spend more time on the POV and POV analysis type stuff than the breaking event itself. The most recent example occurred just last month.
But, because Phil Griffin’s POV makeover of MSNBC is still ongoing, there are several question that need to be raised:
1) At what point does the makeover reach completion status? When all of MSNBC news hours have been replaced with POV analysis shows? Or some point short of that? Have we seen the last of the new POV analysis shows M-Fr or are more in the pipeline?
2) Where are the POV boundaries? What does MSNBC consider acceptable and what does it consider unacceptable? We have no idea but there is considerable public discussion going on right now about that in terms of Al Sharpton and his dual role as advocate for Trayvon Martin and his family and his other role as MSNBC host. There is almost no discussion going on about that in terms of the network’s few remaining dayside news hours.
3) How does NBC News and its staff fit in with Griffin’s POV designs for MSNBC? There may be no remaining firewall between MSNBC dayside and POV primetime because of all the crossover appearances taking place between the two, the increase of POV analysis shows, and the POV style seepage in most of its “newscasts”. But there is considerably more firewall remaining between NBC News and MSNBC in terms of POV creep.
But this could turn out to be very dicey going forward. Say a POV host or a POV inclined news anchor asks a loaded POV type question of an NBC News journalist; how does the NBC News person deal with that? Will they be expected to respond in kind? Will they push back against the question? Do they duck the question? What happens? This, I believe, is probably the single thorniest issue that will confront the two networks and the news division, especially where political and controversial news is involved.
4) Just how much does the NBC News staff recoil in horror at what’s going with MSNBC and how it potentially impacts them and their news division’s brand?
5) How much longer does MSNBC attempt to publicly delineate between what happens from 3-11 and what happens from 9-3? Just a couple of weeks ago Politico’s Dylan Byers wrote about this very subject.
Meanwhile, the shows that run from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. are not “point of view” shows
Really? Now with Alex Wagner? Thomas Roberts’ show? Andrea Mitchell and Tamron Hall doing POV Lean Forward ads? There is so much POV creep happening in relation to those 9-3 hours now that to continue to insist that a fundamental difference exists between 9-3 and 3-11 will almost certainly invite ridicule. There may be a difference in the style and execution but not necessarily the format and news rundown substance.
5) Does Comcast get dragged into this and what does it do? GE got dragged into it and GE interfered at least once when it muzzled Olbermann to temporarily end the “The Feud”; twice if you believe the reports that it was GE that forced Olbermann and Matthews off the air (a story that MSNBC publicly denied but many media writers believe to be true though none has ever written about it. We do talk to each other you know)
How these questions are answered will shape NBC News, MSNBC, and the POV brand Phil Griffin wants for his network.