Is MSNBC on Autopilot?

Photo by Rob Kim/Getty Images
Dylan Byers
March 9, 2022

Early on the morning of February 2nd, I sent a text to an NBCUniversal executive asking, as diplomatically as possible, how MSNBC was going to address its slate of seemingly monumental challenges. The network’s sole primetime star, Rachel Maddow, had just announced that she was going on hiatus for at least a month, a surprise move that underscored her immense value—ratings for her show cratered by 50 percent in February, and by 62 percent in the demo—and presaged the crisis that the network will face after she leaves primetime for good later this year. Brian Williams had also abandoned the network, depriving it of another marquee name and reliable standby for breaking stories and special events. The evening lineup seemed programmed mainly for the leftmost wing of the Democratic party, which constantly bewildered the more centrist journalists on dayside. 

Meanwhile, the network’s myriad streaming services felt like B-side extensions of the linear offering, mostly populated by lesser-known talents. So, I asked via text, was there a strategy? At that point, after all, the network’s most creative programming decision was bequeathing a fifth hour of air to the network’s one other star, Joe Scarborough, presumably to at least partly placate his agent, Ari Emanuel, who seems to preside over the network these days like a feudal lord.

Shortly after I sent the message, however, the news broke that Jeff Zucker had resigned from CNN after acknowledging a consensual relationship with his top aide, Allison Gollust. In response to my inquiry regarding the state of MSNBC, the executive replied simply: “This still the biggest story?” No, I replied. Decidedly not.

Five weeks later, however, none of MSNBC’s problems have gone away. And indeed, a new one has been added to the list. During the Trump years, CNN and MSNBC seemed to run neck-and-neck as #resistance-friendly safe spaces for aggrieved liberals with a rubberneck addiction to the daily shit show in the White House. But the unfolding war in Ukraine has showcased the chasm between the networks, as CNN’s unparalleled global correspondent armada makes MSNBC’s offering look small by comparison. If you come home at night and turn on CNN, you’re almost certain to get a constant stream of correspondents like Clarissa Ward, Matthew Chance, Jim Scuitto, Nick Paton Walsh, etc. reporting live from the front lines. If you turn on MSNBC, you might find Richard Engel in Kyiv, yes, but you’re just as likely to see a desk-bound host like Joy Reid arguing, as she did this week, that the world is only paying attention to Ukraine “because this is happening in Europe,” and because the victims in Ukraine are “white and largely Christian.” Never mind that Russia’s invasion is a once-in-a-generation geopolitical rupture that poses an existential threat to the liberal world order itself. The media has certainly overlooked many humanitarian crises, such as the war in Yemen, and bestowed its attention to far less worthy topics, but Reid’s comment also reads like an excuse for MSNBC’s inability to fully tell the story of Europe’s biggest war in 75 years—and one that could go nuclear in an instant.

The juxtaposition in coverage raises a larger issue. In many ways, CNN appears to be currently demonstrating the very strengths that David Zaslav and John Malone hoped they were inheriting when Discovery agreed to merge with the WarnerMedia assets—a global, post-partisan-ish (at least sometimes) network, helmed by trustworthy broadcasters, like Anderson Cooper. MSNBC, by comparison, looks like a business running an old playbook in a new era. And in the media business, that only lasts so long. (A spokesperson for NBC News Group, which oversees MSNBC, declined to comment when presented with a detailed outline of this piece. Disclosure: I used to work at CNN and NBC News.)

CNN’s success has been borne out in the ratings. Last week, it bested MSNBC in daytime and primetime and nearly tripled its audience in the demo. But the real success has been reputational. If Zaslav and Malone were looking for a demonstration of the value proposition of a more news-driven, less opinionated CNN, they’ve found it in the Ukraine coverage. 

As I’ve reported, Zaslav met with CNN’s top brass last week and pointed to the network’s Ukraine coverage as an example of what CNN does best—and what he wants it to be known for going forward. It may be worth noting here that the influx of viewers to CNN in recent days challenges the thesis that Zucker actually harmed CNN’s reputation by pivoting leftward during the Trump years. Indeed, the world still appears to be turning to CNN for breaking news. 

The war in Ukraine is not an interminable event, at least one sincerely hopes, and the time will come when the news cycle, as it always does, moves on. CNN and MSNBC will eventually once again compete on a more even playing field, and both networks will face the challenge of rejiggering their primetime lineups. MSNBC, in the meantime, seems poised to win the Jen Psaki bidding war—it’s a more natural fit, after all—but her path to marquee-level stardom there will take time and won’t start with a primetime gig. But the problem for MSNBC is that it seems to lack both a leader and an overarching strategy. 

What is MSNBC’s new value proposition in the post-Trump era? The network’s slogan is “This Is Who We Are,” whatever that means, and yet it’s not at all clear who MSNBC is, or even who it is for. In the morning it’s a Scarborough-run, personality-driven political-insider breakfast club. By day, it’s essentially straight-laced NBC News. By night, it’s a soon-to-be-Maddow-less smattering of self-righteous, academic liberals catering to the A.O.C. wing of the Democratic party.

It’s a transitional moment for both CNN and MSNBC, to be sure, and these times call for a strong leader and clear sense of purpose. CNN will soon have a new boss in Chris Licht, the star executive producer who has a knack for cultivating franchise talent and repositioning struggling shows for success. Licht has also been given a clear mandate: to emphasize CNN’s strengths in news and scale back the opinionation machine that was given a long leash during the Trump years. (What Licht does with CNN during non-breaking news moments is, of course, the $64,000 question.)

MSNBC’s lack of identity may represent a few of the whims and traits of its overlords. Jeff Shell, the head of NBCUniversal, and the man with real power to influence the direction of MSNBC—he oversaw Maddow’s $30 million deal, and Scarborough’s takeover of MSNBC a.m.—is busy running Comcast’s entire entertainment business. He wakes up in Beverly Hills most days with 99 issues more financially important than the editorial direction of MSNBC, including (but not limited to) making sure Comcast C.E.O. Brian Roberts is happy, figuring out how to grow Peacock, and staying competitive with the likes of Zaslav, Bob Chapek and Ted Sarandos. MSNBC is, for him, presumably a niche within a niche, and so long as it continues to command high subscriber fees and generate revenue, it may not matter to him who sits in Maddow’s chair at 9 p.m., or how they rate. The streaming future may indeed make a lot of this moot.

Shell’s news chief is Cesar Conde, a McKinsey type who has told people he has no desire to steer or interfere with editorial strategy—a radical departure from his predecessor Andy Lack, who, like Zucker, was obsessive about the news business, preternaturally talented at it, and aggressively cultivated relationships with talent and liked having a hand in the day-to-day, and sometimes minute-to-minute editorial decisions at the network. Under Conde is MSNBC President Rashida Jones, who has yet to show any bold vision for the network’s programming in her first year on the job. In an ego-driven industry, it’s unclear whether Jones has the stature to manage her domineering talent. Indeed, when Ari wants to get Rachel and Joe paid, he goes right to the big boss. 

As Shell and Roberts may see it, this state of affairs might be just fine. There’s no iron-clad law of television news that says you need to have a hyper-competitive Roone Arledge-type overseeing your newsroom. The business is profitable, the ratings are often as good or better than CNN. Maybe MSNBC doesn’t need a solution, because there really isn’t a problem.

It’s an argument, but not one that will satisfy the many MSNBC insiders who play to win, and are looking for a source of inspiration. And the ennui could spell more trouble as CNN staffs up for its soon-to-launch streaming service, and looks to poach talent. “We’re on autopilot,” one producer at the network told me. Was there an illustrative moment that demonstrated the lack of direction, I asked. The producer responded: “I think it’s on T.V. every day.”