MSNBC's Surprising Move

MSNBC surprised everyone Monday with its announcement that the struggling channel will now be headed by an executive tag team of "Today" chief Phil Griffin and one of its own show hosts, Dan Abrams.

The appointment of Griffin didn't exactly come as a surprise; last week's scuttlebutt had him being given the top spot. Abrams's elevation did. It also gives insight into what MSNBC's strategy to avoid being known as "electronic journalism's version of the Chicago Cubs."

Some key facts:

  • Griffin, known officially as "executive in charge," is also keeping his title as executive producer of NBC's "Today" show.
  • Newly dubbed "general manager" Abrams will keep his job as NBC's top legal affairs analyst but will be giving up his current main job as host of the courts-heavy "Abrams Report."
  • Griffin will not move his offices over to MSNBC's far-flung New Jersey location.
  • NBC is in the process of buying out its partner Microsoft's stake in MSNBC entirely. It's already the majority owner.

For Aaron Barnhart, the verdict seems in: "They're letting him keep his network job. Which tells you something about what a high priority fixing MSNBC is over there at GE."

UPDATE 20:54. My take: That Abrams was brought in as Griffin's deputy indicates that there may be relatively major changes in the near future, with a team comprised of a newsie and an exec, it will be harder for competing factions within the organization to resist management. Abrams's hiring also likely means that MSNBC is going to approach news with more irreverence, and give greater latitude to anchors to express their opinions and show emotion (i.e. be more like human beings instead of talking infoheads). [Abrams not getting the top spot also shows that upper management views this as a test of sorts for him. If he pulls it off, expect him to move up the NBC ladder.]

Griffin probably will restrict himself primarily to streamlining operations. NBC is interested in integrating MSNBC more into its news operations. This makes sense because NBC has wasted millions over the years maintaining studios and satellite stations in two separate locations, hemorrhaging money unecessarily. Griffin's staying in New York will either move the cabler closer to its parent broadcast network, or things will fall apart because of a lack of oversight.

In an interview with Philadelphia Inquirer reporter Gail Shister, Abrams claimed "everything is on the table" as far as primetime goes, but said "it would be crazy for us to think about moving or changing Olbermann or Chris Matthews."

I see that remark in a few ways. It could mean the rest of MSNBC will be transformed into Matthews and Olbermann's brand of brash liberalism.

Or, it could mean that the value Abrams sees in these two isn't their politics but rather their brassiness. It's not exactly a secret that many viewers have love/hate relationships with television hosts. Getting hosts with strong personalities makes sense especially for MSNBC since its competitors pretty much have the casual news observer market sewn up. This wasn't always the case. For a long time, CNN was the channel of choice for the so-called "news grazer" largely because of its brand recognition. Fox News coveted this large market segment and was only able to tap into it by establishing its own brand through making news more enjoyable and more politically balanced. The casual viewers only came to FNC after it had made a name of its own.

MSNBC has a similar chance before it. There is a large, underserved market out there, despite claims that cable news ain't big enough for three channels. Fact is, many people 20-50 don't find news especially interesting the way CNN serves it up. And they aren't interested in Fox's brand of confrontation and endless discussion. This is the same audience that is reading and writing blogs and forums.

Griffin and Abrams's predecessors have tried pursuing this elusive demo in the past but always in the wrong way. Instead of adopting the blog ethos, they tried to make television into a blog. That was bound to fail because television and the internet are such dissimilar media that one can't readily reuse techniques from one medium in the other. However, one can learn from the manner of a medium. The advent of the internet has moved news from being a small group's bloodless representation of "the truth" to a discussion in which a variety of interested parties try to find it. Fox's success has shown that people know there is more than one side to a story.

Will MSNBC manage to become the first truly modern television network? We'll see. I think it's possible.

Matthew Sheffield
Matthew Sheffield
Matthew Sheffield, creator of NewsBusters and president of Dialog New Media, an internet marketing and design firm, left NewsBusters at the end of 2013