I’ve recently come across a piece of cable news chatter, a fanciful but illustrative piece of speculation that is bubbling up in influential circles. It’s ridiculous on the face of it, but it may illuminate best where the industry stands right now—in a soon-to-be post-Maddow, post-Brian Williams world. And, frankly, in a potentially post-Chris Cuomo world, too.
Indeed, according to people I’ve spoken with, it will be difficult for CNN to cleanly reinstate Cuomo at 9 p.m. in a way that honors the network’s “facts first” brand, and aligns with the grumblings of John Malone—the most powerful shareholder of Discovery, which will soon merge with CNN’s parent company—that the news network has strayed too far into opinion journalism. Critically for CNN, too, it will be difficult to reinsert Cuomo given that he no longer pulls in the peak ratings he enjoyed at the height of his cross-talking bromance with Don Lemon and his bizarrely weird everything-but-the-noogie peak Covid-era on-air chats with his now in-the-wilderness brother. This is a long way of saying that many in the industry think that, with Maddow likely off to better things in ‘22 and Cuomo presumably due for a humbling, the 9 p.m. slot on both CNN and MSNBC could be up for grabs soon. Hence the chatter. (Chatter that CNN and MSNBC representatives obviously do not want to engage in.)
On Thursday, I was texting an influential cable news insider who said that if CNN really wanted to compete in primetime they should hire… Democratic Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to host the 9 p.m. I was both surprised and amused by the idea, then quickly forgot about it since it seemed implausible. Then, an hour or so later, I was texting with an equally influential broadcast news insider, who runs in very different circles than the aforementioned source, and who, with zero prodding, also posited that MSNBC should hire Ocasio-Cortez to host their 9 p.m. hour. When told that this was the second time her name had come up, albeit in reference to a different network, the insider replied: “It’s bubbling out there. … Take a few years, grow your profile, make millions and then run for Senate, or President.” (I reached out to A.O.C.’s office to see what they make of the chatter. No word back yet.)
No, I don’t think A.O.C. is going to leave the Hill to host a cable news show. She’s 32 years old, still in the early innings of a meteoric political career, and a multiplatform talent who probably doesn’t even have cable. But, like I said, the chatter is illustrative. It highlights the fact that both CNN and MSNBC are in need of a Hail Mary in primetime, and also that they’re likely going to have to settle for something far less remarkable: a shuffling of deck chairs. At CNN, Jeff Zucker appears to have three internal candidates to choose from: Lemon, Brianna Keilar or the man who has been chomping at the bit for a prime time slot nearly since he arrived at CNN nearly a decade ago, Jake Tapper. Both Tapper and Cuomo joined CNN from ABC in January 2013. Cuomo, who started at the network in the mornings, eventually got primetime, Tapper didn’t.
The other option is to try to get someone from the outside like Brian Williams, which would take a great deal of convincing as Williams is trying to get out of the five-nights-a-week grind. The storied anchor still has a strong appetite for a third act, as I reported last month, but he’s likely looking for an arena outside of nightly news programming. (The most entertaining idea? Some media executives that I’ve spoken to envision a future where Williams gets his own late-night, news-centered variety show on a streamer like Apple or HBO Max.) Alternatively, Zucker could go with some bold, unanticipated outsider that I can’t possibly fathom. (Footnote: If Lemon moves to 9 p.m., someone like Laura Coates could take 10 p.m.).
Of the three internal options, the first two are the most obvious for CNN in its current iteration: Lemon and Keilar are outspoken and opinionated, a necessity in cable news primetime these days. But what if CNN’s current iteration is coming to an end in light of the Discovery-WarnerMedia tie up? I keep coming back to Malone’s comments on CNBC the other day: “I would like to see CNN evolve back to the kind of journalism that it started with, and actually have journalists, which would be unique and refreshing.” And perhaps more importantly: “I do believe good journalism could have a role in this future portfolio that Discovery-TimeWarner’s going to represent.”
Now, Malone won’t have the same power at Warner Bros. Discovery that he had at Discovery. He’ll be one board director among thirteen, all with equal voting power. But that’s still a position of great influence, and it stands to reason that what Malone said publicly on CNBC has been said in far more colloquial terms during his private conversations with his friend and soon-to-be-WBD chief David Zaslav. If CNN does tack away from heavily opinionated “resistance” journalism, and back toward something more in line with Malone’s vision, it opens a space for Tapper to finally get his shot in primetime.
And whither MSNBC? As I wrote last month, the consensus among the smartest media executives I’ve spoken to is that the network is screwed. If Jeff Shell and Cesar Conde have a strategy that goes beyond “who else we got?,” I haven’t seen it or heard about it. Maddow will leave primetime in the spring to work on other projects for NBCUniversal. As I reported in September, Nicolle Wallace is seen by many NBC executives as the most obvious in-house candidate to replace her. But no matter who gets that chair, it will take considerable time and effort to get that person to reach anything even approaching Maddow-level ratings or star status. The entire primetime slate will suffer from her absence. Meanwhile, over at Morning Joe power hour, Joe Scarborough is clamoring for more money—“$30 million +$1,” as I reported recently. He won’t get that, of course, but he’ll get more, as will his wife and co-host Mika Brzezinski.