Phil Griffin: MSNBC ‘Comes From A Progressive Stance’; Isn’t ‘Ideologically Driven’
Mediaite: The 8 PM transition…Keith has said some rather passive aggressive things about MSNBC. What can you say about 8 PM, your transition from losing your “tent-pole” brand, and making it through?
Griffin: I anticipated some problems, because he was our tent-pole, but we brought Lawrence on at the end of September, and he did great at 10 when we put him in that slot, and he’s been able to hold steady ratings in a very difficult situation. And that’s critical to us maintaining and growing in prime-time, which we had done. I ’m pleased with how it worked out. It’s better than I thought it would work out, and we’re going to keep building on it.
Mediaite: How does the reliability of your current slate of prime-time lineup compared to that which you had in the past?
Griffin: I see Lawrence as someone who brings this quality of being a Washington insider to his show. I think the passion and intellectual power that Rachel has defines her. I think Ed brings a “real-man” passion to his show. He connects with people, he cares so much. So I think they’re all different in what they bring. Chris has more history in his gut than anybody else on television. I just think what we’ve got is a powerful group of people that love what they do, and that’s the most important thing. People know authenticity. Every one of them care about what they’re talking about, they love what they do, and really put their ideas first and I love it. When you look at the landscape, that’s I think what defines us.
On Fox News: “I’m impressed by what they’ve done and achieved. I don’t always like what they say because I don’t always think it’s based in fact, but I’m impressed with how they’ve created a following…So I tip my hat to Fox”
Mediaite: How do you compete, how do you see your competition? Particularly Fox News, it seems like any rivalry has perhaps abated a bit? How do you view Fox News in the landscape?
Griffin: I’m impressed by what they’ve done and achieved. I don’t always like what they say because I don’t always think it’s based in fact, but I’m impressed with how they’ve created a following and how they’ve become part of the political landscape in ways nobody would have anticipated fifteen years ago. So I tip my hat to Fox. CNN had carved out an area and they’re trying to maintain it, and I worry that if we are not on our toes, they’ll figure out how to regain what they once had. I think it’s really challenging, and it’s why you’ve got to evolve keep growing. And luckily, whether it’s out of nervousness that we’ll fail or nervousness that somebody’s going to come from behind, that’s what we do here. We challenge ourselves.
Mediaite: Part of this is the context of fifteen years. Can you walk us through the evolution of MSNBC?
Griffin: I’ll be honest with you, this place was modeled as a CNN version of Headline News, NBC News on cable, which is a great idea, and thank God MSNBC’s founding fathers did this. They took a big risk, and what Jack Welch, Bob Wright, Andy Lack,and Tom Brokaw did was smart, but what none of us saw at the time was how quickly the media landscape would change. So we had the model but took a little while to figure out how it fit in this new world. And we’re the last one in. Shut the door, ABC couldn’t get in, CBS couldn’t get in.
We got in to the new media, but I don’t think anybody really thought about, “Oh, just put NBC on the Internet.” That wasn’t good enough. All of a sudden you had tens of thousands of websites, entertainment cable channels, information cable channels. If anything, we tried to be all things to all people, like a general interest cable news channel ought to be. And it took a while to dawn on people to say “Hey, this is niche!”
Mediaite: And that lead to “The Place for Politics?”
Griffin: Going into the 2006 election midterms, the one thing MSNBC always excelled at was election coverage. The NBC News Washington bureau is the best bureau in all of television news. Tim Russert was the guy one day who said, on our air, “MSNBC: The Place for Politics,” leading into the 2006 midterms.
Mediaite: He coined that phrase… “The Place for Politics”?
Griffin: Well, it’s debated. All I will tell you is he said it first on the air. And it was shortly after we put it on the right-hand corner of the screen. “The Place for Politics.” Immediately, we had an identity, an identity that fit.
Tim told me, “Griff! You’re going to have the greatest election of your lifetime ’cause neither party has an obvious candidate. Commit to it.” And we did. And we soared.
By the 2008 election, going into the actual election we were beating Fox. Now, we’re shoveling the coal and going, “Wow, we’ve got something.” After a decade, we have really found our identity and the voice that we have. And we’ve broken out in this crowded media world, and been on that trajectory ever since.
“Why aren’t you guys all over the Casey Anthony trial?” Because that’s not what our audience wants.
Mediaite: And now “Lean Forward”?
Griffin: You’ve got to keep pushing it, and if you don’t evolve, you die. We’re continuing to define ourselves. You see it in our ads, and then we grew to “Lean Forward.” What is “Lean Forward”? It’s about championing ideas. In our promotions, they’re talking about what America can be and what America stands for. We’re going to continue that, because we’ve learned along the way, and each time we do better.
We know who our audience is, and they have found us. It’s a mutual thing. But we always have people criticizing us for what we choose to cover. “Why aren’t you guys all over the Casey Anthony trial?” Because that’s not what our audience wants. And yes, some of them are going to leave temporarily, but our core audience will not. We gave up being the legal channel years ago.
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