There had long been rumblings inside 30 Rock that Phil Griffinâ€™s time as president of MSNBC was drawing to a close, but last weekâ€™s announcement that Rashida Jones was taking the helm still came as a surprise to many. â€œNobody really expected it to be a Monday in December a few weeks before the holidays,â€ a producer at MSNBC told me.Â The shift from Griffin, 64, to Jones, 39, marks a generational change, as well as a historic one. Jones, a senior vice president for news at MSNBC and NBC News, will be the first Black woman leading a major TV news network.
The cable-news universe that Jones is ascending to the top of is in a state of flux after four-plus years of Donald Trump dominating the airwaves. Fox News, the perennial ratings leader, is facing serious competition from the right for the first time; CNN has witnessed a post-election surge as network president Jeff Zucker is expected to exit early next year; and MSNBC, whose liberal prime-time hosts assailed Trump on a nightly basis, will have to shift gears as he exits the White House. The conclusion of Trumpâ€™s presidency is also a fitting denouement for Griffin, whose ultimate legacy might be his resilience. During his 12-year run as president, Griffin oversaw MSNBCâ€™s transformation from a mixed bag of news and political talk shows into an influential platform on the left, led by Rachel Maddow, all while weathering both leadership changes and recurring speculation about his own future. â€œPhil has had 26 lives, and heâ€™s the first guy to tell you that,â€ one host told me.Â
One of those extra lives came midway through Barack Obamaâ€™s second term, when MSNBC saw its ratings plummet and the channel faced a potential reckoning over its liberal branding. At the end of 2014, Griffin acknowledged that it had been â€œa difficult yearâ€ for MSNBC. Months later, in early 2015, Griffin had a new boss, with Andy Lack returning as chairman of NBC News following the crisis stemming from then Nightly News anchor Brian Williams giving viewers a false account of a reporting trip in Iraq. Lack immediately made an effort to bring the imprimatur of the networkâ€™s hard-news division to MSNBC, scaling back the opinion-driven programming in favor of more down-the-middle coverage. Speculation was rampant that prime-time host Chris Hayes was on the chopping block. By the fall, MSNBC completed its overhaul with a much-ballyhooed new daytime lineup that reflected Lackâ€™s hard-news vision. â€œThat is what MSNBC was created for,â€ Lack said at the time. â€œIt was created to put NBC News in the 24/7 news business.â€Â
Griffin managed to survive that round of reshuffling, but the changes prompted him to contemplate an exit. One source told me Griffin became an investor in Bodega 88, a sports bar on the Upper West Side, because he believed his retirement was imminent. But just when the â€œLean Forwardâ€ era appeared to be flickering out, Trumpâ€™s ascent and the ensuing political dramas turned the likes of Maddow into appointment television for its liberal viewers. As Robert Muellerâ€™s investigation plodded on, MSNBC began to challenge Fox Newsâ€™ ratings dominance, notching rare victories over its conservative counterpart. The Russiagate storyline proved particularly fruitful for Maddow, whose eponymous program milked every drip and drop from the Mueller probe en route to becoming the top-rated show on cable news and a must-stop for 2020 Democratic hopefuls.
With the election over, Griffin, a die-hard Mets fan, said last week, â€œthe time felt right to hang up my cleats.â€ A more precise sports analogy might be an athlete calling it quits just before his team enters a rebuilding period. â€œIn a way, heâ€™s the luckiest man in television, exiting stage left at a time when everything is getting murkier,â€ said one high-ranking source at MSNBC. The task now falls to Jones to shepherd MSNBC through that murkiness, the causes of which are many. Lackâ€™s turbulent tenure came to an end in May when he was replaced by former Telemundo chairman Cesar Conde, whose hire has prompted speculation of looming cuts throughout all of NBCâ€™s news units and divisions. (MSNBC declined interview requests for Jones, Griffin, and Conde.) The end of the Trump era may thrust MSNBC back into the wilderness, with sleepier news cycles and a less rapt audience. â€œNobody will need MSNBC the way they needed it the last four years,â€ said the host. â€œThe TV will go off.â€Â Â
Even as a new year, and new administration, are on the horizon, some inside the network are looking back with trepidation that MSNBC may find itself somewhat rudderless again. â€œThere is a universal dreading of it being like 2014 again,â€ one producer told me. As Obama arrived at the lame-duck stage of his presidency, MSNBC struggled to sustain a connection with the liberal viewers who watched obsessively in the 2008 and 2012 elections. â€œEverybody could read the ratings,â€ said Krystal Ball, who cohosted The Cycle from 2012 to 2015, and has more recently criticized the network from the left.
MSNBCâ€™s struggles during that period were perhaps best illustrated by the 2014 launch of Ronan Farrow Daily, an afternoon program hosted by the now celebrated Pulitzerâ€“winning investigative journalist that drew anemic ratings and was canceled after only a year. â€œYou donâ€™t have the hope and change of [Obamaâ€™s] first term. Youâ€™re in the second term. Senate is deadlocked. Everything is a struggle. Government shutdown. Itâ€™s a grind,â€ said Richard Wolffe, a former MSNBC executive and commentator. â€œThe hopes of progressives just die every day. So what happensâ€”and this is what we saw back in that periodâ€”is that progressives donâ€™t stop watching, but they watch less.â€Â Â
Wolffe was tapped to serve as general manager of the channelâ€™s digital operation in 2012. His chief directive was the launch of MSNBC.com, which was billed as â€œthe first true digital home for MSNBC.â€ More broadly, the website helped draw a distinction between MSNBC and NBC News, while emphasizing the formerâ€™s liberal identity. The site launched in 2013 and soon became home to a number of young, lefty writers, but the next couple years were a bleak time at MSNBC. â€œWe donâ€™t like talking about 2013 and 2014,â€ another producer told me. By the end of 2015, Wolffeâ€™s time at the network came to an end, with Lack dialing back the ambitions of MSNBC.com and the networkâ€™s liberal bent. As Wolffe sees it, MSNBC squandered an opportunity to fortify both its journalism and business, a misstep he believes was only temporarily offset by the Trump bump and the number of people tethered to their homes during the pandemic. â€œI think theyâ€™re going to be hit with a double whammy,â€ Wolffe told me. â€œYou lose Trump, but you also lose people working from home as 2021 goes through. And I suspect a lot of people just leave their TV on hours and hours and hours.â€Â
Since the election, two familiar faces, Tiffany Cross and Jonathan Capehart, have kicked off weekend shows on MSNBC, filling the slot Joy Reid vacated when moving to weekday evenings. Beyond the cable channel, there has also been a concerted effort in recent months toward what Conde and others describe as an â€œomnichannelâ€ presence for MSNBC, including a renewed commitment to MSNBC.com, an acknowledgment that it must broaden its scope beyond television. Most notable among those efforts has been The Choice, a channel on the newly launched NBC streaming platform Peacock that a lazier marketer may have simply dubbed â€œMSNBC 2.â€ The flagship programs on The Choice are hosted by Mehdi Hasan and Zerlina Maxwell, two MSNBC regulars whose opinion-driven shows are decidedly not in the â€œhard newsâ€ genre. The Daily Beast recently described Hasanâ€™s show, which launched in early October, as â€œone of the most satisfying nightly news programs in America.â€
The appetite for political opinion in cable news has often benefited those in the opposition, with Keith Olbermannâ€™s booming denunciations toward the end of the George W. Bush presidency helping put MSNBC on the prime-time map, or Glenn Beckâ€™s chalkboard rants in the early days of Obamaâ€™s presidency earning big ratings for Fox News. What remains to be seen is whether MSNBCâ€™s liberal programming has more success in Joe Bidenâ€™s presidency than it did during Obamaâ€™s. MSNBC could define itself, in part, as a progressive check on Bidenâ€™s administration, though the network was seen in this yearâ€™s Democratic primary as largely hostile to Bernie Sandersâ€™s candidacy. Also, with Biden guaranteed to be less visible and vociferous than Trump, politics could be eclipsed by other beats, creating a news environment that may be more comfortable terrain for CNN and Fox. â€œOur viewers think that when thereâ€™s breaking news, that CNN is the place to go,â€ said the MSNBC host, noting CNNâ€™s success covering this summerâ€™s protests and the election.
The network, officially, brushed off doubts about its place in the cable wars. â€œViewers turn to MSNBC in record numbers because of our in-depth coverage and analysis of an unprecedented news cycle,â€ a network spokesperson told me. â€œThe events driving that journalismâ€”the pandemic, the economy, the reckoning around racial injustice, and the White House transitionâ€”will continue to captivate news audiences. Our anchors, correspondents, and contributors bring a level of knowledge and humanity to these stories that sets us apart.â€
Ultimately, what happens next at MSNBC will be shaped by the two new leaders at the helm. Conde has been largely hands off with the channel, a far cry from Lack. But another host said Conde is â€œknown for streamlining,â€ while a third host, citing the expected fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic, put it even more bluntly: â€œIâ€™m anticipating a bloodbath.â€ In Jones, MSNBC has an injection of both youth and diversity in an executive stable that has been largely white, old, and male. Her promotion caps a meteoric rise that began in 2013, when she started as an executive producer for a morning news show at MSNBC. Jones became a senior vice president of NBC News in 2017, and in April was put in charge of MSNBCâ€™s dayside programming. In conversations with people who have worked with her, Jones was widely praised, described as a â€œwell-organizedâ€ leader and a true â€œnews person.â€ But as impressive as her credentials are, Jonesâ€™s vision for MSNBC is a mystery, particularly the prime-time lineup. She was viewed by many as a more likely replacement for Noah Oppenheim, the president of NBC News who is widely expected to step down sometime in the next year. â€œIf you look at the changes she made at dayside as a template for the future,â€ said a senior source, â€œthereâ€™s not much to go on there.â€Â