Never underestimate the power of a well-timed leak. Late Wednesday night, Axios scooped that MSNBC’s 9 a.m. host Stephanie Ruhle would be taking over Brian Williams’ former chair at The 11th Hour. It was a notable and well-deserved accomplishment for Ruhle, a rare talent and generous colleague who will undoubtedly thrive in her new perch. But the headlines about Ruhle’s promotion arguably obscured the more remarkable news: Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski had succeeded in convincing Jeff Shell to give Morning Joe yet another hour of real estate on the network. Scarborough & Co. now own 25 hours per week, or more than 25 percent of the entire MSNBC weekday lineup.
The expansion of the Morning Joe franchise—which starts with Way Too Early at 5 a.m. and will now run until 10 a.m.—reveals a lot about the current state of affairs at MSNBC. First, it’s a reminder of the influence wielded by superagents Ari Emanuel and Mark Shapiro. In the fall, the duo negotiated the deal that gave Rachel Maddow $30 million-a-year with the option to step away from her primetime show and work less. They also negotiated on behalf of Scarborough to get the additional hour for Morning Joe. As for Ruhle’s jump to The 11th Hour, a promotion that others at the network (most notably Ali Velshi) were hoping for—yes, Emanuel and Shapiro represent her, too. Indeed, there’s a case to be made that WME wields more power inside MSNBC than any of the executives working under Shell. Or, as one high-ranking MSNBC source told me today, “it’s Ari Emanuel’s network now.”
Of course, the decision to give one show five hours of real estate also points to a pronounced lack of alternatives and the desire to manage existing assets as the company pivots to a streaming future. I don’t begrudge anyone for milking their existing I.P.—it’s a tried and true practice in Hollywood, and there’s already a precedent for it at 30 Rock with the decision to add a fourth hour to the Today show. This expansion also allows Morning Joe to gain viewers on the West Coast, where Scarborough has already finished his fifth cup of coffee by the time most people are waking up. But doubling down on Scarborough only makes MSNBC more reliant on one star who can continue to squeeze Shell’s purse over time. Remember, in the wake of Maddow’s big payday, Scarborough started telling friends and advisers that he wanted “$30 million plus $1,” as I reported back in November. Whatever Scarborough is actually worth to NBC, he’s certainly even more valuable now given that MSNBC mornings belong almost entirely to Morning Joe. Perhaps this is a way to justify paying him the money he’s demanding.