MSNBC Is Trying To Ruin Itself

Ken Tucker
Critic-at-Large, Yahoo Entertainment
Rachel Maddow; Lawrence O’Donnell (Photos: MSNBC)

Everyone over at MSNBC ought to be feeling very good these days. For the first time since anyone can remember, the liberal-skewing cable network’s ratings in primetime are winning the night: Last week, among viewers ages 25 to 54 (the demographic prized by advertisters), MSNBC beat Fox News and CNN. Until he was fired, from Fox, Bill O’Reilly led a regular rout of MSNBC’s schedule. Now, Rachel Maddow is primetime’s most persuasive cable anchor, vanquishing her chatterbox Fox competition, The Five, and boosting the shows before and after her All In with Chris Hayes and The Last Word with Lawrence O’Donnell. There are nights at 10 p.m. when Fox’s rabid squirrel, Sean Hannity, is beaten in that key demograph by O’Donnell, whose previous job was writing for The West Wing, the liberal-president fantasy that’s pretty much a Fox News viewer’s all-time nightmare. So the Trump presidency, and the resistance to it, has really paid off for MSNBC’s programming strategy. Break out the champagne, right?

Nope. Indeed, quite the opposite. It’s more like: Man the battle stations! Today, on Thursday, protestors are planning to picket in front of MSNBC’s New York City office to rail against the possibility that the company may not renew O’Donnell’s contract, which expires next Monday. It is widely thought that NBC and MSNBC news chairman Andrew Lack doesn’t much care for O’Donnell’s show. (For the record, I don’t have much use for O’Donnell myself — his style of progressive polemics always strikes me as too smug by half — but that doesn’t mean I don’t recognize his value to the network.) You’d think that if this were just a personality clash, the boss would replace the employee who irritates him with an equally strong liberal on-air personality. It is absolutely outrageous, for example, that Joy Reid — at once the most leftist and the most enjoyable MSNBC host — hasn’t been given a primetime show, consigned instead to weekend afternoon status.

Instead, the rumor is that Lack would like to oust O’Donnell to move Brian Williams’s nightly 11 p.m. newscast into the 10 p.m. slot. Lack also is busy undermining MSNBC as the place to go for liberal politics — the clear-cut contrast to Fox — with his recent hires. Lack, who was instrumental in hiring Megyn Kelly away from Fox to throw a good scare into the Today Show audience, picked up Greta Van Susteren after her Fox News show ended and put her on MSNBC at 6 p.m., where her honking monotone voice grates on left-wing ears and her ratings are low. Lack hired Nicolle Wallace, former George W. Bush communications director and trivia bonus-point answer to “Who’s the most forgettable co-host of The View?” and gave her an afternoon show whose title sounds like a 1950s TV show about a cigar-chomping newspaper editor: Deadline: White House.

In the coming weeks and months, look for the invasion of the conservatives on MSNBC. The channel has also hired right-wing radio-show host and snow-white grinning skull Hugh Hewitt to commandeer his own TV project. And George Will — whose brand of conservatism is so stodgy that O’Reilly used to insult him on-air while Will was a paid Fox News contributor — will soon be an MSNBC fixture.

If there’s one thing TV executives strive for in the 21st century, it’s branding: that hard-to-achieve, clear messaging that instantly tells a channel-flipper exactly what she or he is going to get when he or she tunes in. MSNBC has always been a difficult channel to package neatly to advertisers because it’s such a peculiar beast: It wakes in the morning to broadcast Morning Joe, that weird-vibe Joe Scarborough-Mika Brzezinski psycho-drama, and the channel fritters away its weekends with reruns of the prison-fan fave Lockup. Companies spend multimillions and take years to develop the kind of distinctive branding MSNBC enjoys as the premier place for progressive politics. Why would Lack undermine his brand?

A couple of likely reasons: greed, plus short-term thinking about sucking up to the man now in power. Lack and MSNBC’s news president, Phil Griffin, are very aware that President Trump does not like O’Donnell, who has spent many years ridiculing Trump, who once threatened to sue him. Griffin told the Hollywood Reporter that Trump called him during the presidential campaign to say that O’Donnell is “a third-rate anchor” and ought to be fired. Given that NBC is owned by the conservative-tilted Comcast, Lack probably thinks he could curry favor with the White House administration and bring in more profits if he steered MSNBC where the big money is — in ratings-busters, like exclusive Trump interviews (something MSNBC has not had) and ad buys from conservative corporate pockets.

So I’ll be watching to see whether any of the cable news outlets train their cameras on the torches-and-pitchforks pro-O’Donnell protest today. If the channel isn’t careful, MSNBC may one day look back and think that the unnecessary O’Donnell mess marked the start of the network’s ruination. Meanwhile, over at Fox, they’re probably cackling with glee and telling Sean Hannity he can come in off the ledge — his main competition may be tossed off the roof first.

The Last Word with Lawrence O’Donnell airs weeknights at 10 p.m. on MSNBC.

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