So I’m doing my usual flipping-through-cable-news-channels-exercise-while-the-baby-absorbs-seven-ounces-of-something-called-Similac this morning when I see the great Steve Sanders of 90210 fame (Ian Ziering, Jersey guy) on set with Mika Brzezinski, Thomas Roberts and John Heilemann. The topic: Sharknado 2, of course…
Now as most of you know, Morning Joe is usually a roundtable discussion of hot news of the morning, with a major emphasis on politics. The conversations are invariably spontaneous and mostly casual. Being this kind of insider/niche program, it doesn’t generate the greatest ratings, but is as much a staple of MSNBC as Hardball or The Rachel Maddow Show. In fact, its primary hosts are so highly regarded inside of 30 Rock, some were kind enough to leak on several occasions that Joe Scarborough and Mika are frontrunners to replace the reportedly-doomed David Gregory sooner rather than later.
But one thing the show has illustrated is that it simply cannot do the kind of light stuff that is part and parcel of every morning program. An interview on a Sharknado sequel (which—in a true sign of the apocalypse, will break Twitter when it airs tonight), and with its star (Ziering) fall into that category…
But when it became time for Mika and crew to show some range and bring the same humor and energy that Ziering—who amazingly looks no different from his Peach Pit After Dark days in the 90s—brought to the table, all I saw were mostly sober faces (until the very end) staring at a smiling, self-deprecating Ziering. Mika even looked like she had contempt for the 50-year-old actor (really…he’s 50) when he mentioned his guest gigs as a Chippendales performer. So here you had Ziering plugging the movie, downright giddy he’s actually getting paid to do something so patently-bad-it’s-good, and everyone on set just went through the interview motions as if it was Debbie Wasserman Schultz sitting there instead.
We saw the same thing happen when Russell Brand visited a few months ago. Check this out if you haven’t seen it…just brutal, an utter disaster. That said, these kind of interviews aren’t what powers Morning Joe, obviously aren’t the bread and butter of the program. No show is perfect. But the conversation this morning—or the Brand one—is a microcosm of what could be argued is MSNBC’s subtle problem when it comes to its on-air talent: Everyone seems to take themselves way too seriously, and outside of Maddow occasionally, doesn’t seem to grasp the power of humor the way liberal political satirists like, say, Bill Maher and Jon Stewart do so effectively.
One other glaring issue for the network: Shutting down disagreement between hosts and/or contributors/guests on how a story is covered. For example, instead of telling Rula Jebreal to take a hike for challenging MSNBC’s coverage of the Gaza conflict, network President Phil Griffin should have promoted her…because that exchange generated more buzz than anything to come out MSNBC in awhile. In 2008, the aforementioned Olbermann once told Scarborough to “get a shovel” in a live disagreement during convention coverage. They got into an entertaining spat again in 2010, which led to Griffin sending this internal note to all employees…which included this warning:
I want to reiterate my long-standing policy: We do not publicly criticize our colleagues. This kind of behavior is unprofessional and will not be tolerated.
But why not tolerate it? Fox personalities do it often and it makes for good TV. It’s almost a daily staple for staff members to verbally brawl on the air each morning on The Howard Stern Show and many fans will tell you it’s absolutely the best part of the show. In short, it’s candid, genuine and oftentimes refreshing to see the gloves taken off between colleagues.
As you can see, this isn’t a column about ideology or messaging. MSNBC experienced a steady ratings boost in 2006 when Keith Olbermann slammed President Bush on a nightly basis. Network brass saw the huge reaction to what KO was doing and decided being a liberal alternative to Fox was the right strategy. Given where the numbers used to be pre-2006 and where they ascended to in 2012 leading up to that year’s presidential election (a solid 2nd place), going definitively left was the only place MSNBC could go to survive.
But since the election, it’s no secret the network has turned stale and predictable. Even many folks who call themselves progressives agree. It mostly abandoned its straight news programming, as a Pew study last year showed the network is now 85 percent opinion (vs 54 percent opinion for Fox and 46 percent opinion for CNN). All the offerings seem to blend into one: Ronan Farrow is no different from Joy Reid who is no different from Alex Wagner.
And the numbers—and yes, they absolutely do matter—show it: In July, MSNBC finished 4th in the cable news race. Disturbing to those running the network to be sure…especially when considering that HLN—which is undergoing a serious transition and probably shouldn’t even be considered a cable news station in any true sense—took 3rd place without any kind of Jodi Aries/George Zimmerman trial going on.
So what should be adjusted or fixed within reason? Here’s the fast-food-drive-thru-ordering version of a few suggestions to start. One disclaimer: I can’t say “Blow the whole thing up,” or “Hire Jon Stewart, Bill Maher and John Oliver to occupy primetime instead.” We’ll need to keep this within the boundaries of reality, which means financially-feasible free agent signings and elevating or demoting (for lack of a better word) talent currently under contract with the network. So here we go, with a focus on afternoon specifically:
1) Give Ari Melber –who has proved his value and range in various guest hosting spots in afternoon and prime–Ronan Farrow’s timeslot.
2) Move Farrow to the cast of The Cycle, where the impromptu format will suit his style more (some people are hosts, some are pundits…Farrow is the latter).
3) Sign Paul Krugman and add him to the Cycle rotation. Love or hate him, the New York Times columnist is a lightning rod for controversy. What’s that, you say? The Cycle can only feature youngish hosts to attract those in the key 25-54 demo? As we’ve seen on The Five, having a 65-year-old Bob Beckel is only helping that show dominate its timeslot. 64-year-old Bill O’Reilly has been #1 in cable news for well over a decade. 51-year-old Jon Stewart obviously has great appeal with the younger demo. Quality matters, not the age of a host.
4) Don’t renew Ed Schultz‘s contract. It just ain’t working anymore.
5) Sign Anthony Weiner. Say what you will about his personal life, the guy can make an argument and rarely backs down.
6) Sign Ann Coulter, pair her with Weiner at 5:00 PM and steal ESPN’s highly-successful Pardon the Interruption format (time limit on X amount on a rundown of stories to cover and throw two five-minute guest interviews in the C and E blocks (roughly :22 and :45 past the hour). You may loathe one or the other (or both), but admit it…you’d always check in.
Change comes slowly in cable news, so we’ll keep the suggestions there for now.
MSNBC has experienced a horrific 18 months since President Obama won a second term. Unlike the Sharknado franchise, the buzz isn’t there. The numbers are going south.
Simply doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result is the definition of insanity.
To turn things around, the network should follow a former campaign theme:
Hope and (more importantly) change.
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