Smith isn’t a polarizing figure like Kelly — though both have been repeatedly scorched by President Trump for being insufficiently pro-Trump. Nor is he straying from his lane, as Kelly did. She was an opinionated prime-time cable host whom NBC tried to turn into a sunny morning-TV personality; he was a respected nonpartisan anchor who occupies the same chair in his new gig.
But like Kelly, Smith’s recruitment by NBC-owned CNBC has so far produced a modest return on NBC’s investment — a roughly $10 million salary, a staff of 25 and a new set at CNBC’s headquarters in Englewood Cliffs, N.J.
Since his debut in late September, “The News With Shepard Smith” has averaged a modest 280,000 viewers each weeknight at 7 p.m. That’s twice as many viewers as the “Shark Tank” reruns it replaced — but a fraction of the 2 million-plus viewers that CNN, Fox and MSNBC each attract at the same hour. “The News” even finishes behind CNBC’s main rival, Fox Business Network, which airs a rerun of Trump-loyalist commentator Lou Dobbs’s program. The hot new cable news show at the moment isn’t Smith’s handsomely produced hour; it’s one hosted by another former Fox denizen, Greg Kelly, on the conservative Newsmax channel that proffers baseless claims about how the election was “stolen” from Trump.
This during a year when an explosion of news has bolstered the ratings for many other traditional newscasts. So if it isn’t attracting a crowd right now, when would it?
Smith, 56, says he’s been so focused on producing his show that he hasn’t spent much time thinking about how many people are watching it.
“I don’t know where we’re supposed to be” in viewership, he said. “We’ve had no discussions about ratings with our staff. None of our senior leadership team has ever sat down and talked about [it]. What we have to do is build a great newscast . . . and then eventually people will come to that or they won’t.”
Smith was among co-founder Roger Ailes’s earliest hires during the launch of Fox in 1996, and his profile grew alongside the network’s. Over 23 years he rose from field correspondent to the face of Fox’s news operation, anchoring almost every major breaking story and at one point presiding over two daily news shows.
In a wide-ranging conversation last week, Smith, a courtly Mississippi native, expressed his gratitude to Fox: “They gave me an opportunity, and they never got in my way in telling the truth.” He disputes the perception — widely reported at the time — that he fled Fox because of infighting with its opinionated hosts.
Days before announcing his abrupt exit in October of last year, Smith mixed it up on air with prime-time host Tucker Carlson. When a guest on Carlson’s show, Trump attorney Joseph DiGenova, called Fox’s legal analyst, Andrew Napolitano, “a fool” for suggesting Trump’s impeachment was justified, Smith responded by calling DiGenova’s attack on Napolitano “repugnant.” Carlson followed up by mocking Smith and suggesting Smith had somehow been “dishonest” in criticizing DiGenova.
Smith said the dust-up had no bearing on why he left Fox a mere two weeks later. “As someone who is in the public eye, and with the privilege and platform of influence, I’m accustomed to incoming [criticism],” he said. But “no incoming affected what I did. . . . The temptation to connect dots where there is no connection is great.”
Instead, he said, “it was time” to leave Fox. “I did what I could do there. I felt like I was going to continue to do the same thing forever, and that’s not what I wanted to do. I looked around and said, ‘What is my future?’ And I decided I wanted something different, for a million different reasons.”
Smith’s departure stunned his news-side colleagues, who considered him a truth-telling counterweight to Fox’s Trump-or-die opinion hosts. But his leave-taking was celebrated among the Trump faithful, who saw his frequent fact checks of the president as a betrayal. (A Fox spokeswoman declined to comment on Smith, instead referring to the network’s supportive comments when he left last year.)
Smith spent months contemplating his next step, which was circumscribed by a one-year noncompete requirement. He thought about getting out of TV news altogether but found as offers rolled in that he still had the itch.
When the coronavirus pandemic hit, “I sat around with my partner in quarantine with nothing to do but thaw chicken like everyone else,” he said. “I really had time to think about it, not minutes but hours and days and weeks. I realized I still wanted to tell the stories of our time again. I’m not too old. I’m not too tired.”
The best offer came from CNBC’s chairman, Mark Hoffman, who proposed building a news show around Smith at 7 p.m., the time period Smith had once occupied at Fox. The idea was to create a bridge between CNBC’s daytime programming — its lucrative stock market and business coverage — and its nighttime schedule, long a mishmash of “Shark Tank,” “Jay Leno’s Garage,” documentaries and retreaded game shows such as “Deal or No Deal.”
“The News” is a fast-paced but traditional newscast, with long and short pieces on big topics (the economy, the virus, etc.) and small ones (such as a recent story about pet names that have become popular during the covid era). The reporting comes both from CNBC’s own correspondents and NBC News’s front-line team; Monday’s program featured a weather report from the “Today” show’s Al Roker and a story by NBC’s veteran foreign correspondent Richard Engel about the assassination of Iran’s chief nuclear scientist.
Smith says he’s especially pleased by what isn’t there: No panel discussions, no debates, no shouting matches or partisan opinions. None of what you’ll find on the cable news programs it’s up against.
It may be that Smith is doing the right show, suiting his skills as a journalist and communicator, but on the wrong network and at the wrong time. “The News” is squeezed in between Jim Cramer’s overcaffeinated stock-tout show, “Mad Money,” at 6 p.m., and, yes, repeats of “Shark Tank” at 8 p.m.
“It’s disappointing that someone like Shep Smith, who survived at Fox News with fidelity to the facts and reporting, hasn’t been able to find an audience in the cable universe. But it’s not surprising, either,” said Mark Lukasiewicz, a former NBC and ABC News executive who once developed programs for CNBC.
Lukasiewicz, now the dean of Hofstra University’s communications school, said CNBC has put “The News” in an odd time slot, out of step with the prevailing cable model in the evening. “I don’t think [Smith] is set up for success,” he said. “There really isn’t a news audience coming to CNBC” at that hour.
The good news, Lukasiewicz said, is that CNBC and Smith aren’t repeating the Megyn Kelly debacle: “I don’t think they’re making [Smith] into something he isn’t. This is Shep being Shep. . . . Maybe this show, at this time, isn’t a good fit. But he wouldn’t be the first that could be said of.”
He speculated that NBC News could have bigger plans for Smith. For example, Smith might fit as a substitute for Lester Holt on “NBC Nightly News” or Chuck Todd on “Meet the Press.”
Smith’s program may also be a kind of experiment in corporate synergy, as suggested by the presence of NBC News stars such as Roker and Engel. CNBC has long been its own profitable shop, operating outside the purview of NBC News; Smith’s boss, Hoffman, reported directly to the corporate heads at NBC Universal, bypassing NBC News Chairman Andy Lack, with whom he didn’t see eye to eye. This year, with Lack’s retirement, CNBC has come back into the NBC News fold, joining sibling networks NBC, MSNBC, Telemundo and Sky News under a new executive, Cesar Conde.
Smith says he’s game for an expansion of news across the vast acreage that NBC controls.
“There’s more room for the thoughtful presentation of issues that doesn’t involve panels and opinion and screaming,” he said. “There’s more room for honest newsgathering and careful presentation of the facts. I’m all for more of that.”