NBC News is planning a makeover of MSNBC, its little-watched cable news network, in a bid to revive its slumping fortunes, people at the network say.
The overhaul could sweep some of MSNBC’s pundits and hosts away in favor of more news coverage, continuing a trend MSNBC has already started. The revamped lineup will feature a familiar face: Brian Williams, who NBC has decided to redeploy at MSNBC when his six-month suspension as anchor of “NBC Nightly News” lapses in August. The punishment stemmed from a series of exaggerated statements he made in TV appearances over the years.
The network made Williams’s return official Thursday, saying he will handle breaking news and live reports for MSNBC. Lester Holt will permanently replace him on “NBC Nightly News.”
A few other stars are likely to remain at MSNBC, too, including prime-time hosts Rachel Maddow and Chris Matthews, as well as morning hosts Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski, according to NBC staffers with knowledge of the expected changes. Those four are considered to be franchise players in an otherwise dismal lineup that has pushed MSNBC’s audience ratings to some of their lowest levels.
During each 24-hour cycle, MSNBC averaged just 334,000 viewers, or fewer than the population of Bakersfield, Calif.
Senior executives at MSNBC say it is unlikely that the network will fully abandon the liberal niche it developed over the past decade as an alternative to conservative-leaning Fox News and more centrist and newsy CNN. But MSNBC is likely to emerge looking more like CNN than its current composition, they say.
The new wild card in any remodeling is Williams, whose reassignment to MSNBC is the equivalent of a major leaguer being sent down to the minors. Williams worked his way up to the NBC anchor desk after spending eight years at MSNBC, starting with the network’s inception in 1996. (NBC left the door open for Williams’s full restoration to the mother network, saying he would fill in for Holt on NBC’s live coverage when Holt isn’t available).
But precisely how Williams will fit in at MSNBC isn’t clear.
The cable network has already taken steps to rid its daytime schedule of talk programming and replace it with news. In February, it dropped afternoon talk shows hosted by Ronan Farrow and Joy Reid that had scored all-time ratings lows in their time slots. They were replaced with a two-hour afternoon newscast anchored by Thomas Roberts.
Although NBC says Williams will focus on daytime hours, potentially bigfooting Roberts, it’s likely that he will expand MSNBC’s news offerings into prime-time hours, too. His portfolio would include big, breaking stories such as this week’s church shootings in Charleston, S.C. That story broke about 9 p.m. Wednesday.
An expanded role for Williams could be risky, said Mark Feldstein, a former network correspondent who is a broadcast journalism professor at the University of Maryland.
“I think it’s a mistake to make Williams the public face of hard news at MSNBC since breaking news was a venue for his false reporting in the first place,” he said.
“It would make more sense to give him a talk show to take advantage of his skills as an entertaining raconteur without being burdened by the need for journalistic credibility, which he’s obviously sacrificed. How can the public now believe his reporting of breaking news?”
In his first public comments since leaving the air in February, Williams said in an NBC statement Thursday: “I’m sorry. I said things that weren’t true. I let down my NBC colleagues and our viewers, and I’m determined to earn back their trust.”
MSNBC may need to make some bold moves fast, given its dire straits. While all of the leading cable news channels have been losing audience since hitting a peak around the
2008 election, MSNBC has been in the steepest decline.
It lost nearly 1 in 5 viewers last year (18 percent) during daytime hours and 8 percent during prime-time hours, the most important period for advertisers, according to the Pew Research Center.
The audience exodus, in turn, has hammered MSNBC’s revenue and profit. The network’s earnings fell 8 percent last year to $206 million, Pew said.
An MSNBC spokeswoman, Rachel Racusen, declined to comment.
The need for change at MSNBC was underscored during Phil Griffin’s recent contract renewal talks; the president kept his job, according to people at MSNBC, but with the expectation that he would lead a reversal of its sputtering performance over the next few years.
“The assumption at NBC has been that they had to fix the ‘Today’ show first, then ‘Meet the Press,’ and then the Brian Williams problem came along,” said one NBC journalist, who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity because he is not permitted to speak for the network. “There were more pressing problems to address than MSNBC. Now they can turn their full-time attention to it.”
Griffin now has help from Andrew Lack, the NBC News chairman hired in March by NBC parent Comcast Corp. to address the Williams mess.
Lack, who presided over the founding of MSNBC in a previous stint at NBC News, has the experience and boardroom clout “to break the china” and remake the network, as one insider put it.
That could be bad news for some of MSNBC’s signature hosts. Outside of Matthews at
7 p.m. and Maddow at 9, most of MSNBC’s afternoon and evening talk programs perform poorly. They include Alex Wagner at
4 p.m., Ed Schultz at 5, Al Sharpton at 6, Chris Hayes at
8 and Lawrence O’Donnell at 10.
An expansion of news programming would likely involve contributions from NBC’s bench of seasoned journalists, who are eager for more airtime than the half-hour “NBC Nightly News” can accommodate now.
But such a strategy could risk losing the small audience MSNBC attracts now and would divide the relatively shallow pool of news junkies with CNN.
“Do we lose our core audience if we move too far away?” asked one network journalist about the network’s liberal base.
“Do we even have a core audience? CNN’s numbers aren’t all that great. And there’s already a CNN.”