Doogie Howser: Cable News Host

What can we divine from these word cloud images that appear during Ronan Farrow Daily’s open? More importantly, what does MSNBC want us to divine from these word cloud images that appear during the show’s open?



Well, for one thing we can get an idea of why Phil Griffin wants to put a 26 year old in the anchor chair. “Spokesperson for youth”. It and “Rally” are the only categories that appears in both of these images…a not very subtle attempt to cater to the demographic Griffin is hoping to ensnare. The problem is you don’t become a spokesperson for youth by simply putting words on a screen. Non-subliminal messaging is a poor substitute for actual action.

Update: It’s possible that there is an alternate explanation for the Spokesperson for Youth inclusion. From 2001 to 2009, Farrow was a UNICEF Spokesperson for Youth. It’s possible that the words appearing on MSNBC’s screen refer to that portion of his life but for legal and trademark reasons could not include the UNICEF label. That would make a bit more sense than the idea that MSNBC just threw the words Spokesperson for Youth up on the screen in a flailing attempt to attract younger viewers.

But if MSNBC does want to go after that most fickle of news demographics; the 18-25 group…one more fickle to cable news than news junkies…it needs to tailor the show to them and not just throw them the occasional bone in a single segment in a rundown overwhelmingly dominated by the usual MSNBC progressive subjects not of interest to the young – at least not of enough interest as evidenced by how similar programming on MSNBC the past couple years has failed to attract them and then keep them watching – and the odd breaking news segment.

There is a danger in that strategy though. That danger is creating a show to appeal to one particular demographic can have the potential of alienating all the other demographics…ones that MSNBC has up until now been almost exclusively relying on. MSNBC appears to be aware of this which goes a long way to explaining the schizoid format of Ronan Farrow Daily up until this point. It’s trying to have it both ways. On the one hand its trying to position Farrow as the “great young hope” but it is imprisoning him in a show that undercuts all that. You can’t please all of the people all of the time but you can alienate all of the people all of the time. A show which is positioned one way but executes a completely different way has the potential of doing just that.

But getting back to that word cloud…notice something else? It’s rather defensive in nature. Almost as if sensing that the network has a credibility problem to deal with in putting on someone that young and totally inexperienced in the ways of cable news anchoring on the air, those word clouds read like a resume word cloud. For all the publicity he’s gotten in the past six months, MSNBC still felt the need to burnish Farrow’s bonafides at the start of the show. And I’m not the only one who has noticed what MSNBC is up to…

Oh dear God. The SET of Ronan Farrow’s show features the words “Rhodes Scholar” and “Yale Law School.”

I get the need to fill in what most of the viewing audience might consider to be a “blank slate” as far as Farrow is concerned but I have to agree…the inclusion of “Rhodes Scholar” and “Yale Law School” should have been avoided (Yale Law School made the show’s open but Rhodes Scholar did not). While they do play up Farrow’s background and they are indeed incontestable points of fact…they are divisive points of fact for a show that’s trying to break fresh ground and capture a new audience…terminology that middle America and blue collar conservatives, rightly or wrongly, associate with the kind of elitist left wing liberalism that they just can’t identify with.

That kind of ideological tone deafness was seen elsewhere on the show this week. There was a segment on the Tea Party’s 5th Anniversary which managed to avoid having anyone associated with the Tea Party on to discuss it. Ok, maybe they wouldn’t want to be there in the first place but the point remains that Ronan Farrow Daily examined the Tea Party’s 5th year in a segment devoid of anyone from the Tea Party. That’s like doing a panel segment on NASA astronauts but without any NASA astronauts…you basically lose all credibility covering the subject.

Is Farrow being shielded by overzealous MSNBC producers afraid to risk the possibility of Farrow getting “bettered” (or battered) by a well prepared talking pointer with lots of experience in the cable news trenches? It is clear that Farrow needs his notes…not just with his show (which all hosts and news anchors have) but off it too – he brought one with him to Bill Maher’s HBO show a couple of weeks back…something I don’t usually see happen on Maher’s show. Or, does Farrow just not want to take on people with contrary views to the subjects he’s covering ala Keith Olbermann?

It’s too early to say which is the case with Ronan Farrow Daily but I do believe that for Farrow to succeed he’s going to have to escape the trap of echo chamber programming on his show because to not do so feeds into a pre-existing narrative MSNBC would just as soon want to go away; that Farrow is a carefully manufactured and tightly controlled project with handlers; a project kept on a tight leash and unable to operate without a safety net.

Do I think he’s like that? No. You don’t get to work in the State Department and travel the world and meet foreign leaders and succeed at it if you require that level of protection. Do I think his show and what we have seen of his publicity campaign the past six months contribute to and/or reinforce that image? Unfortunately for Farrow, I do. We saw an unfortunate example of this at the end of this week with what happened with the Reach The World Benefit. Regardless of who did or did not give the order to muzzle the press, this is the kind of thing Team Farrow and MSNBC don’t need any more of at this stage of their marriage. MSNBC already has one star that is increasingly associated with the “can’t take a punch outside of their own show” label (Maddow). It doesn’t need another.

An interesting aspect of Ronan Farrow Daily is its use of pre-packaged content for some segments. Just this week we saw Farrow in Kenya talking about U.S. food exports undermining local growers, we saw Farrow interviewing Miley Cyrus which was part of Farrow’s Cyrus interview for W magazine, and a report produced by Vocativ on the “Tower of David” in Venezuela.

One surmises that there are a few more “Farrow on location” pieces in the can waiting to be cued up for broadcast, but given how Farrow is essentially NYC-locked with his show now, I seriously wonder whether this is something that is sustainable long term. The Cyrus interview was just a snippet considering how many hours he was there with her but what I found striking was how Farrow said he liked her. I find that striking because I read that W interview and if this was Farrow’s idea of “liked” I’d hate to read an interview he did with someone he despises. This was underscored by how, immediately after the interview, he had on Hollis Jane who said she felt used by the singer at the VMAs. The Vocativ piece was interesting but not that ground breaking to anyone who saw this past season of “Homeland” and read the backstory.

I’m going to basically ignore anything pertaining to Farrow’s newbieishness on the TV. Everyone who comes to TV has to go through it at some point and, besides, I have seen a lot worse baptisms by fire on MSNBC’s air. But one thing that does rub me wrong are the oft ill timed jokes and asides Farrow tosses out. They aren’t needed, especially from someone who is still trying to establish their bonafides as a serious talent talking serious issues. Nor all the gratuitous compliments bordering on fanboyism being tossed out to every NBC talent that comes on Farrow’s show. Maybe he really does feel that way but they come across the screen as heavy handed when everyone seems to get them.

I am surprised that Ronan Farrow Daily does not do more to play off of the host’s experiences. You can argue about whether Farrow belongs on MSNBC’s air but you can’t argue with the experiences and opportunities he has had. And yet, surprisingly, the show has done little to take advantage of that. A great example of this came when the breaking news aired about the collapse of talks on US troops in Afghanistan. Farrow hinted at from personal experience how tough Karzai is to deal with. This would have been a great opportunity for Farrow to talk about Afghanistan from his personal experiences but all we got were a couple of throwaway sentences. It was a golden opportunity for Farrow to show that yes indeed he isn’t just the 26 year old son of Mia Farrow with an impressive paper resume…he has real world experience that he can contribute to his show. It was an opportunity that was, sadly, missed.

It is hard to recommend anyone sit through an hour of a show when that show doesn’t seem to know what it wants to be about. Is it about activism? Is it about engaging the youth of America? Is it about the third world? Is it about the cult of celebrity? Is it about the Phil Griffin pushed high brow progressive ivy league politics format MSNBC has clung to with a vice like grip?

We don’t know because apparently MSNBC itself doesn’t know. Ronan Farrow Daily is trying to be all of those things and because it is trying to be all of those things it is succeeding at none of them. It is a schizoid show hosted by a 26 year old who up until a year ago almost nobody heard of. It is a long way from the show Farrow claimed he wanted it to be when he said “This is a new generation of news show for a new, more engaged generation of viewers. It’s a show about why the news matters to you – and what you can do to be a part of the story,”. It needs to find itself. Fast.


6 Responses to “Doogie Howser: Cable News Host”

  1. What amazes me in the television industry is how unprofessional the executives are. Noting new — from shows anyone should have known would fail, “Me and the Chimp”, to the Conan-Leno fiasco. How do these geniuses get to be “a suit”? Which brings me to Phil Griffin throwing this nice young man into such a mess. At least the Romans trained their gladiators before sending them out to fight. At least they knew what the fight was to be.

  2. paminwi Says:

    “You don’t get to work at the State Dept. and travel the world and meet foreign leaders and SUCCEED (my emphasis) at it…..”

    Who says he had success? The people he worked for at the State Dept. sure aren’t going to say he sucked at it will they? If he was so successful why did he leave? Just because some article says he was successful I don’t have to believe it. At 27 years old he may be smart but I would guess we all know people who are book smart but can not translate that into “real world”, I get and understand those around me kind of “smart”.

  3. […] MSNBC’s “Ronan Farrow Daily”: “a schizoid show hosted by a 26 year old…” [Inside Cable News] […]

  4. […] MSNBC’s “Ronan Farrow Daily”: “a schizoid show hosted by a 26 year old…” [Inside Cable News] […]

  5. […] MSNBC’s “Ronan Farrow Daily”: “a schizoid show hosted by a 26 year old…” [Inside Cable News] […]

  6. […] a must read that echoes some of what I wrote, The Huffington Post’s Zach Simon is not impressed with Ronan Farrow […]

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