MSNBC’s 2016 Changes…

In a must read, Politico’s Hadas Gold has an extensive interview with MSNBC President Phil Griffin.

Yes it’s a softball interview. But the chances we would get a tough one were always slim. It doesn’t matter what network you are talking about and that includes all the non-news networks as well…people who grill network presidents in one on one interviews are people who don’t get more interviews with said network…particularly when the interview was a network pitch which this one obviously was since much of it had to do with a new branding campaign. That’s just a fact of life. Gold isn’t stupid. In any case it doesn’t have to be a tough interview to make the interview noteworthy. In this case Griffin provided plenty of topics we can analyze…

“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.

Shots fired but they’re dum-dums. What Griffin said about going deep on stories may be true but the reality is MSNBC is essentially doing what Zucker says CNN is doing.

So on television we are going to go much deeper on the one, two or three stories of real significance or interest that day…

See a difference? I don’t. The plane jab was more than deserved but inferring CNN doesn’t go deep on multiple stories rings hollow.

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.

1. Who cares who shot it? Unless the last name is Leibovitz the general public is going to shrug.

2. Who considers Lawrence O’Donnell a codebreaker?

3. Who considers Mika Brzezinski a firebrand? For that matter who considers Joe Scarborough a firebrand?

I like Joe but come on. Keith Olbermann was a firebrand. Glen Beck was a firebrand. Ed Schultz was a firebrand. Sean Hannity is a firebrand. For years MSNBC has positioned Morning Joe as the D.C. go to show, with some success. That’s not the kind of format which firebrands thrive in. This classification is ludicrous in every way.

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.”

You could make a strong case for Hewitt and Ginsberg but Schmidt, Wallace, and Steele are considered milktoast conservatives by most conservatives. MSNBC going this route is akin to FNC touting Juan Williams as one of its liberals. It’s pretty weak sauce.

You need to be an old timer like me but MSNBC once did have a strong conservative group of analysts. Besides Ginsberg there was Mark Levin, Rich Galen and others…people that conservatives didn’t look at somewhat sideways. Those three were real pitbulls at times. What MSNBC has going now is a pale imitation of those days.

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.)

That’s a fair point but now that most of those people aren’t running for President how many of them will continue to appear on MSNBC? That’s the $64,000 question.

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.”

Not that Joe needs Phil defending him but this defense is fair. I found the criticism of a Trump/Scarborough connection flawed. It sure doesn’t stand up to scrutiny the way Hannity’s relationship with Trump does. It’s more like what Greta said about the controversy over her coverage of Trump. Trump makes himself available more than the other candidates.

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.

I’ve been saying the same thing for over a year. MSNBC isn’t going to make primetime changes before the election…and probably not before the inauguration. And the network is still committed to Hayes who has been popping up with increasing frequency at 4pm for an hour as the network tries to increase his exposure level.

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.

I’m with Griffin. It’s BS. Primetime for MSNBC has been a different animal from dayside for over a decade now. MSNBC got into trouble when it started taking primetime to dayside and eschewing news for POV analysis with POV hosts.

“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.

Mostly true. I chaffe at Welker’s inclusion since Welker had been with MSNBC long before this group came together.

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.”

Points to Griffin for recognizing the obvious. A course change is going to be needed post-election most likely. The one possible exception will be if Trump gets elected. That wildcard would mess with any network president’s best laid plans.

And then there’s the kicker quote…

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.

True, dat. That’s the one point that undercuts MSNBC’s feel good story. Yeah, it’s gone up. But it had fallen so low any rebound could be conflated as a trend when it could actually be a correction.


8 Responses to “MSNBC’s 2016 Changes…”

  1. […] ICN: Why CNN ignores irrelevant Couric flap; thoughts on MSNBC changes. […]

  2. bushleaguer Says:

    The problem with Griffin’s “Codebreakers” is that 1) they all cover the same content, and 2) they all “break the code” using the same ideology. MSNBC was better off when they had Tucker Carlson on…he isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but it was nice to hear an alternate viewpoint.

    The other issue that is ongoing with MSNBC is their “the place for politics” approach…,.once the election season is over their viewership will decline.

  3. A few thoughts.

    Chris Hayes isn’t going anywhere, not now, not ever. If he’s survived this long, he’s not going away. He’s like a NASCAR driver who wins a couple races here and there but gets an elite ride for 20 years.

    I’d like to see what MSNBC looks like next year. I said right after their rebrand that there was even more politics than there was when they had shows like The Cycle on. Instead of headline news, they axed two shows I liked and replaced them with political news coverage.

    But, it’s also an election cycle. And MSNBC isn’t alone in abandoning news altogether for Donald Trump 24/7. CNN and Fox News did the same thing.

    Now, if MSNBC’s “THE PLACE FOR POLITICS 2018” or “THE PLACE FOR POLITICS 2020” this time next year, I’ll write them off for good. I love politics and I’m totally burned out. The news has been wall-to-wall with Donald Trump all the time for a year now and he’s gonna get elected because of it. And even before that, it was all politics unless CNN was searching for a missing plane.

  4. “get out of the standard reading scripts in the newsroom and report out in the field”

    Uh, no. Doing that costs money the networks are unwilling to spend. That’s how we went from covering the news to talking about one or two things all day long. Now that Trump has come along, he has made it even cheaper to fill the airwaves.

    Unless planes start falling on dry land, I don’t see it happening after November.

  5. Chris Hayes isn’t going anywhere, not now, not ever. If he’s survived this long, he’s not going away. He’s like a NASCAR driver who wins a couple races here and there but gets an elite ride for 20 years.

    I don’t think so. I think this is his last shot. He fell further down MSNBC’s priority list when dayside crashed out and had to be overhauled. But that list is getting shorter and his time is coming.

  6. MSNBC has gone too far to the right. With all the Conservative guest on the shows now one has to swear that their watching Fox News. Come after the elections what Progressives that are still tuning in this network will leave and who feel MSNBC has abandon the Progressive cause. Back in the 90’s NBC brought in Andy Lack to run the news. What he did was turn MSNBC into FOX Lite by hiring a lost of Far Right Conservative Host which failed miserably. Now Comcast has brought back Andy Lack and I feel their heading into the same pitfall as they did back then. Right now I spent a little more than half my viewing time now watching CNN and will leave MSNBC completely soon after the elections are done. I feel no loyalty to a network that abandon their viewers. The only reason I still watch is for the prime time host I like and if they don’t have on too many far right nuts on, for I can see a change in these Host now having to suck up to a conservative agenda.

  7. MSNBC has gone too far to the right. With all the Conservative guest on the shows now one has to swear that their watching Fox News.

    Yep. I know a lot of progressives who will never watch MSNBC again because they catered to the Trumpies. It’s fine to be more balanced, but MSNBC forgot who their viewers have been for the past decade.

  8. On the subject of MSNBC… Friday night/Saturday morning was definitely their night.

    Brian Williams was at his best and MSNBC (who broke the story, strangely) was on point.

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