This week, NBC News published a bit of evergreen, service-y consumer trivia: nearly one-third of Americans wait til the last minute to file their taxes. The gist, of course, was that such procrastination is absurd. Tax day is inevitable, so why does anyone wait until the eleventh hour to deal with it?
The same question might reasonably be asked of NBC’s handling of Rachel Maddow’s long-anticipated departure from her nightly MSNBC show. Seven months ago, Maddow and her superagents at WME struck a $30 million-a-year deal with NBCUniversal C.E.O. Jeff Shell that gave Maddow the option to end her nightly show on April 30 and instead focus on other projects, like specials and documentaries and podcasts and other I.P. In short, she was being paid more to focus on higher-value projects, allowing her to ease off the still very profitable, but declining, and certainly less relevant world of cable news. The press heralded it at the time as Maddow being paid more to do less, simply to keep her in-house, and it’s hard to argue with this proclamation.
It also posed a management double-whammy for Shell. Maddow has written multiple best-sellers and created a fantastic podcast, Bagman, which was developed into a book. But she hasn’t yet proven to be a walking Mandalorian or the Obamas (and, by the way, it’s not entirely clear if their various all-around deals are working out financially, either).
Moreover, Maddow isn’t just MSNBC’s biggest star—she is prime time. MSNBC relied on her as its sole ratings powerhouse because it had no remotely comparable talents, and because Shell & Co. either believed the network couldn’t afford to lose her or because they didn’t want to be seen as the ones responsible for losing her.
“The Existential Threat”
As I reported at the time, Maddow intended to exercise the option of scaling back her linear duties from the moment she signed the new contract. And, as I also reported at the time, the overwhelming consensus in the building was that MSNBC had no bench—no heir apparent who could be groomed to take Maddow’s place and deliver comparable ratings. All of which is to say that Shell and his deputies Cesar Conde and Rashida Jones had about 200 days to come up with a post-Maddow strategy: a bold new hire to anchor the primetime lineup, or at least an internal promotion that, coupled with the right marketing strategy, might signal the next iteration of the avowedly liberal cable news network.
And yet, here we are: On Monday, Maddow announced that she will scale back her show to one night a week, leaving the network’s most important hour on every-day-but-Monday to a handful of rotating hosts on a show that will appropriately fly under the bland, talent-less title of MSNBC Prime, a seemingly straight news-inflected departure from the attitude-and-opinion prime time formula. The contingency plan, it seems, isn’t really much of a plan at all.
Maddow’s staff, which wasn’t informed until the day of the announcement, according to sources familiar with the situation, got hit with a ton of bricks. Long under the impression that they would be working for Maddow on her future endeavors, they instead learned that they would now spend the majority of their time producing a show she didn’t want to host, anchored by hosts who don’t have her influence. (In a statement, an MSNBC spokesperson told me: “Management was clear with The Rachel Maddow Show staff that Rachel would work across MSNBC and NBCU platforms, and staffing assignments have not been decided outside of their regular 9pm duties. Rachel cares deeply about her staff and has been transparent about working through these issues thoughtfully as she is just beginning to plan for her new role. The show team will continue to produce the 9pm hour.”)
Whatever the case, this new structure is confounding on multiple levels, as the network presumably continues to attempt to articulate its post-Trump bold vision for what MSNBC is, other than a mash-up of Joe Scarborough & friends, NBC News and woke, self-righteous liberals living in the shadow of a former star who would rather not deal with the grind.
But there is a more forgiving interpretation of MSNBC’s current predicament. Maddow’s move to streaming projects and podcasts is indicative of where consumer interest is heading anyway: away from linear, appointment viewing and toward on-demand video and audio. If Maddow doesn’t want to stick around to fight the daily ratings game, why should MSNBC? It turns a profit simply by existing as a part of the cable bundle and reaping the sub fees. As I wrote in March, there’s no iron-clad law that cable news needs to be competitive (though it always has been). Hell, if the post-Maddow primetime lineup doesn’t work out, they could replace it with Shark Tank.
Shell may think superstar talents don’t matter as much as they once did, and that MSNBC can be managed profitably without the oscillations and vicissitudes of ratings wars and talent battles, especially as the future of news on streaming remains a puzzle. Remember, after all, that none of the biggest streamers have figured this out; the biggest, in fact, have eschewed it entirely.
“The existential threat for MSNBC is not the four days she’s not on TV,” one high-level insider at the network told me. “The existential threat for MSNBC is MSNBC itself. It’s a quickly shrinking iceberg.”
“I think [Shell] sees little value in a traditional cable anchor,” the insider continued. “And that may be the thing that melts the cable news iceberg faster than anything external.”