The TV Column: MSNBC still undecided on plans for guest-host Sharpton

August 2, 2011

No decision has been made on whether to give MSNBC’s 6 p.m. time slot to the Rev. Al Sharpton.

Sharpton was lobbied by Comcast and had given his blessing when Comcast was trying to buy MSNBC parent NBC Universal. Now, speaking to critics at Summer TV Press Tour 2011, MSNBC President Phil Griffin insisted that hiring Sharpton would not be a conflict of interest because, in some capacity or another, “he’s been on MSNBC for . . . 15 years.”

In a recent statement, MSNBC said, “There is no agreement with Mr. Sharpton to host a program; however, it is important to note that Comcast plays no role in either the independent editorial decision-making of MSNBC or the selection of its hosts.”

On Tuesday, Griffin insisted that Sharpton is doing well guest-hosting the 6 p.m. time slot, which leads into MSNBC’s prime-time lineup.


MSNBC President Phil Griffin, left, Rachel Maddow, Lawrence O'Donnell and Chris Matthews. (Frank Micelotta/FRANK MICELOTTA/PICTUREGROUP VIA AP IMAGES)

“No decision has been made yet,” said Griffin, who noted that Sharpton “fits in with the MSNBC . . . sensibility.”

Immediately after, MSNBC’s on-air elder statesman, Chris Matthews — who was sharing the stage with Griffin, Rachel Maddow and Lawrence O’Donnell — barked, “He’s done really well at 5 and 7. . . . If he does really well, I think the job is his.”

Last year, Comcast approached Sharpton, who heads the National Action Network and other minority organizations, to try to smooth the path for its takeover of NBC Universal while that deal was being scrutinized in Washington. Sharpton was among those who gave the merger a thumbs-up, after Comcast presented a plan to foster diversity — including diversity in its news programming.

(MSNBC noted in a recent ratings release that it “continues to be #1 among African American and Hispanic viewers,” adding: “This marks the 6th consecutive quarterly win among African American viewers and the 5th consecutive quarterly win among Hispanic viewers.”)

Griffin said Tuesday he was surprised that Cenk Uygur, who hosted the 6 p.m. slot for six months, declined to sign a new contract with the network.

The time slot has been up for grabs since Keith Olbermann left MSNBC in January; Ed Schultz was moved from 6 to 10 p.m. as part of the shake-up, and Uygur, who had been a contributor at the network, was tried out then.

“We wanted Cenk to stay,” said Griffin, noting that Uygur also “fits our sensibility.”

MSNBC offered Uygur a deal to do a weekend show and contribute during the week, Griffin said. “For whatever reason, it didn’t work out, but he was terrific and I have nothing bad to say about him.”

Uygur told the New York Times recently that he decided to walk because he thought Griffin had given in to political pressure in casting the time slot.

Griffin opened his Q&A with some bright, shiny lights, comparing his network’s ratings performance with Fox News Channel and CNN, and announcing that he’d signed Maddow to a new multi-year deal. So you can stop reading reports that she might be joining her old pal Olbermann at CurrentTV.

Elsewhere at MSNBC: After a month in the doghouse, political analyst Mark Halperin will be back at the network Wednesday morning, returning to the scene of his crime: “Morning Joe.” MSNBC confirmed that Halperin would appear on the program but declined to speak on the subject.

The cable news network suspended Halperin in late June, after he called President Obama “kind of a [bleep]” on “Morning Joe.” Halperin did so after he’d been assured by co-hosts Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski that the show had a seven-second delay in effect and that he should “take a chance.”

NBC’s ‘Playboy Club’

Every TV season, one new show gets amongst the undies of the Reporters Who Cover Television and twists them into knots. This year, the honor seems to have fallen to NBC’s drama, set in the ’60s, about the original Playboy Club in Chicago.

Why else would NBC Entertainment chairman Robert Greenblatt introduce “The Playboy Club” at Summer TV Press Tour 2011 by noting that past bunnies have included not only Barbara Walters, Lauren Hutton, Deborah Harry, Sherilyn Fenn and Barbara Bosson, but also a federal judge and a “world-renowned” immunologist?

After Greenblatt’s intro, TV critics began to beat their chests:

“I hear someone use the word ‘empowering,’ but I’ve heard from my female readers that a show centered on Playboy . . . they don’t see it as empowering,” said one male critic.

“And your central story involves a woman who needs to rely on a man to get through the crisis that she’s in the middle of. How is this show empowering and how are you going to be able to sell female viewers on this show — a show centered on a nudie magazine — as empowering?” he wondered.

In the pilot episode, naive new bunny Maureen, played by 25-year-old Amber Heard — one year too old to be a Playboy Bunny at the Chicago Playboy Club in the ’60s — gets pawed by a mobster in a back room and, as she tries to escape, the mobster falls and she accidentally plunges her stiletto heel into his skull. A club regular, Nick, who has political aspirations and mob connections, comes to her rescue by sneaking her out of the club — and over to his place.

“Well, the first thing I’d say is: It’s not based on the magazine, it’s based on the Playboy Club in 1961. It’s entirely different,” exec producer Ian Biederman responded.

“That’s an empowering institution for women. I can see that,” the critic sneered.

Amber Heard took exception to having Maureen referred to as a woman in peril who gets saved by Nick:

“Don’t underestimate that character and her intelligence, and the journey she’s going to take to really rise above that. . . . Maureen allows herself to be helped when she needs it. And she by no means relies on any character, male or female, in this story, and never has. And we’ll see that journey.”

While the press tried to figure out what pilot episode it was Amber had seen, she began to explain to them — including a goodly number who were alive in the ’60s — about the ’60s, when she, Amber, was negative-20-something-years old:

“Ultimately, it’s a different generation,” she said. “There were different opportunities and different expectations for women. And I am fortunate to be a part of this new generation where I don’t need to choose between combat boots and an apron. I can do it in heels!”

One critic talked about one of the show’s taglines, which says the club is a place where men hold the key but women run the show. “That just seems ridiculous to me . . . all the Playboy Clubs were run by men,” the critic said. “And Hugh Hefner, I’m sure, had a lot to say about how women were portrayed, what they could do, couldn’t do. How are women running the show here, in reality?”

“I think it’s a common, puritanical kind of way we look at things, that we consider if it involves sexuality that somehow the women must be compromised,” Amber snorted.

“And I think it’s just chauvinistic to deny women her sexuality. I think that it’s about empowering. It comes down ultimately to choices. And just like anything else, if there are choices available and they’re making the choice, they’re not being exploited.”

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