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“It’s Ari Emanuel’s Network Now”

Ari Emanuel in 2010
Photo by Bobby Bank/WireImage
Dylan Byers
January 28, 2022

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.

The expansion of the Scarborough franchise is yet another reminder of the incongruent strategies at play inside MSNBC. CNN, by contrast, is run by one man, Jeff Zucker—a prodigiously talented and confident programmer who is personally invested in the most significant decisions, from story selection to bookings, and even down to chyron copy. If Zucker sees something slightly off on his screen, he picks up the phone and calls the control room. 

By contrast, MSNBC, particularly since the departure of Andy Lack as chairman of NBC News, is split among disparate power centers. There’s Scarborough and his clique of establishment-friendly, centrist friends and media insiders; there’s also the straightforward NBC News programming that dominates the network during the day; and, for now, a woke-friendly Maddow-led run of primetime programming that is increasingly beholden to the liberal wing of the Democratic party. It’s confusing to insiders and outsiders, too.

Nominally, NBC News chairman Cesar Conde and MSNBC President Rashida Jones run this network, but their power is limited. Conde, an executive off the Wharton assembly line, has no interest in directing editorial strategy, and he has told the talent as much. Jones, for her part, doesn’t have the leverage to tell the network’s highest-paid talents what to do. Expect more talent-friendly deals for the top stars and more commissions for Ari.

Meanwhile, in the wake of my reporting earlier this week on CBS News’ uncertain future and co-president Neeraj Khemlani’s ill-fated attempts to lure Brian Williams to Evening News, a number of sources have come out of the woodwork to draw my attention to what they describe as widespread staff frustrations with Khemlani’s leadership, which have led to a number of H.R. complaints over his management style. Those complaints, previously cited in a New York Post report, led CBS Entertainment chief George Cheeks, who hired Khemlani, to talk to the newsroom leader about how he’s managing his staff. 

More sympathetic associates of Khemlani will note that leadership changes inevitably frustrate some portion of the staff at any organization, and that is likely to be especially true at a place like CBS News, which has long had an established way of doing things. It’s not like the status quo was working particularly well; CBS’s morning and nightly news shows have been mired in third place for a generation. But believe me when I say that the frustrations here are landing in my inbox, unsolicited, from a wide variety of employees. Mysteriously absent from all of these complaints is any mention of Khemlani’s co-president, Wendy McMahon. Make of that what you will. 

There’s also some drama brewing between Khemlani and the executive producers of CBS News’ two most successful shows. Both Bill Owens, the E.P. of 60 Minutes, and Rand Morrison, the E.P. of Sunday Morning, have privately expressed frustration over Khemlani’s attempts to exert greater control over franchises that were once sacrosanct and run without any sort of interference from CBS News executives. David Rhodes, who ran CBS News from 2011 to 2019, would never have dreamed of telling Jeff Fager what to do with 60 Minutes. By the same token, Susan Zirinsky didn’t interfere with Owens. (In fact, Zirinsky’s hire was greeted by grumblings from within 60 Minutes, where many believed that the former 48 Hours E.P. had middle-brow taste. She maintained the peace during her brief tenure because each side more or less left the other alone.)

No one is upholding this sort of organizational structure as ideal management, of course, but creative ego stroking is a critical part of a top executive’s job, as Jason Kilar knows first hand. Khemlani is demonstrating that he intends to do away with all that and manage by fiat. “Neeraj has come in and basically made clear he believes 60 reports to him and that he thinks the show is doing poorly,” one source at the network told me. (CBS News did not respond to a request for comment).

Khemlani is presumably trying to keep costs down across the organization as Shari Redstone prepares for an eventual sale. His mandate may also be related to the $800 million in “synergies” that C.E.O. Bob Bakish promised shareholders after Viacom re-merged with CBS in 2019. Meanwhile, a significant chunk of Khemlani’s budget will continue to go to Gayle King, who just signed a new deal with the network. King, the true face of CBS News, makes north of $10 million to co-anchor a weekday morning show that remains in a distant third place behind its competitors. One rarely discussed fact about the much-beloved celebrity host is that, even though she’s a natural on-air talent and lands great interviews, she doesn’t move ratings. And, as a CBS News source sympathetic to Owens and Morrison noted, eight figures is a lot of money to spend on staying in third place.