MSNBC Liberal Makeover Phil Griffin
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MSNBC is getting ready to debut a new show about sports. And one focused on books. And another that will examine celebrity and popular culture. In all, the NBCUniversal-owned cable-news network has 14 new programs ready to roll.

You won’t see any of them on MSNBC. At least, not yet.

The cable-news outlet best known for progressive commentary from Rachel Maddow and Chris Hayes is launching a portal of streaming-video programming that its top executive, Phil Griffin, expects to have a great deal of influence on the cable network in months to come. Through the new digital initiative, known as “Shift by MSNBC,” the network will serve up new topics and introduce new contributors that could gradually make their way to the cable network, Griffin believes – depending on the traction they gain among audiences. “Shift” is expected to launch Monday morning.

“We’ve got to keep evolving,” he explained during a conversation in his office at NBCUniversal’s 30 Rockefeller Center headquarters. “We are going to broaden the aperture, but keep the sensibility. Times change and evolve. We had great success in 2006 to 2012, 2013, with our sensibility, but I think now, with the media exploding, we’ve got to adjust a little bit too, and figure out new ways to grab audiences.” Among the new offerings is “The Briefing,” a political program hosted Monday and Fridays by Luke Russert, and “Code Forward,” a discussion of issues raised by new technology, developed in partnership with the tech-news outlet Re/Code.

The launch comes as MSNBC pushes against the same headwinds rivals are facing: Cable-news ratings have over the long term sunk as viewers turn to mobile devices and digital techniques to get information about their world. Replenishing this crowd with younger viewers becomes tough when millennials and the generation behind them seem more comfortable with streaming video that does not require a subscription to a satellite or cable distributor. Last month, MSNBC saw its total viewership fall 13% and its audience in the demo most favored by advertisers in news programming — people between 25 and 54 — tumble 16%, according to Nielsen. In 2013, the network saw its primetime audience decline 24%, according to analysis from the Pew Research Journalism Project.

“Shift” will serve to lure people making one of their own. According to Pew, the “vast majority” of U.S. consumers get news via digital means. In 2013, 82% of Americans said they got news on a desktop or laptop and 54% said they got news on a mobile device, according to Pew’s “State of the News Media 2014.” What’s more, 35% said they accessed news “frequently” on their desktop or laptop, and 21% indicated they did the same using a mobile device.

Some of MSNBC’s competitors have already made a stab at new audiences. CNN’s CNNGo lets viewers access CNN content in “on demand” fashion via tablet and set-top box. CBS’ CBSN is the streaming-video equivalent of a cable-news network, but delivered without the expensive infrastructure.

MSNBC executives see “Shift” as an interesting bid for younger viewers and dominance in new subject areas, but also as a prod that will get users to join the audience of its cable network. Both Griffin and Richard Wolffe, executive editor of MSNBC.com, see a time coming in the very near future when viewers no longer differentiate between what they watch on TV and what they watch via other screens, and “Shift” is an attempt to get people who do not subscribe to cable or satellite to put roots down in the broader MSNBC community. “Shift” will grant access to MSNBC programming for people who subscribe to cable or satellite distributors.

Should “Shift” prove popular, its content could be reserved for people who can authenticate a video subscription, MSNBC executives said. At present, however, “We just want to get people to watch it and see what works,” Griffin said.

What viewers see will look a little different from the fare available on MSNBC, which has its roots in cable-news tradition. “Shift” users can tune in various programs between 9 a.m. and 4 p.m. Monday through Friday, Wolffe explained. At other times, viewers will see a loop of programming. Most new shows are likely to run once a week, not every day, and MSNBC will also broadcast documentaries and live coverage of events when warranted. One program, “Reporter’s Notebook” hosted by Beth Fouhy, will let MSNBC reporters offer the back story on their reportage. Hosts on “Shift” will not sit behind desks, Wolffe said. “It’s much more casual – different faces, a younger crowd.”

Josh Barro, who writes for the New York Times’ “The Upshot,” will tackle “Three Cents,” a program centered on economics. “Left Field” will examine sports issues; a host has yet to be named. Ayman Mohyeldin, an NBC News staffer who has gained notice in recent months for his Middle East reporting, will lead “Roadmap,” a show that examines the factors behind complicated stories like the rise of ISIS. Reporters will be able to file “notebooks” that show what happens behind the scenes on a story. Krystal Ball, the co-anchor of MSNBC daytime show “The Cycle,” will host “Krystal Clear,” a show centered on issues related to younger women. “Way Too Early” anchor Thomas Roberts will host “Out There,” which focuses on LGBT issues that drive the news cycle. Janet Mock, a transgender rights activist, is at the center of “So Popular!” The show looks at celebrity and pop-culture news through a progressive lens.

Other programs will tackle immigration (“Changing America,” hosted by Maria Teresa Kumar); the “green” lifestyle (“Greenhouse” with Tony Dokoupil”); and interviews with policy wonks (“Nerding Out,” with Dorian Warren). And Wolffe, who has written extensively on the Obama presidency and Spanish cooking, will host a show on books.

What viewers will not see is original programming streaming during MSNBC’s primetime, or the network’s primetime TV hosts performing additional duties on “Shift.” That is deliberate, said Wolffe. MSNBC does not want to offer content that will compete with its stalwarts like Al Sharpton, Chris Matthews or Maddow. “Primetime is premium,” said Wolffe.

To get word out about the new shows, MSNBC is likely to use “Shift” hosts and topics in segments on some of its programming, said Wolffe. He envisions a segment about sports cropping up on “All in With Chris Hayes” or “Morning Joe.” MSNBC will also use social media to draw attention to the new offerings, and will employ the hashtag #ShiftHappens.

“Shift” debuts little more than a year after the relaunch of MSNBC.com. Once a broad news portal that once hosted content from Newsweek, MSNBC.com was transformed into the new site for NBC News once parent company NBCUniversal bought out Microsoft from a partnership in MSNBC. The new iteration of the MSNBC website was designed as a way to build community and allow viewers to interact with the network’s TV shows.

The new effort comes as Griffin has tried to push MSNBC as a home for the progressive community, enlisting hosts like Jose Diaz-Balart and Ronan Farrow in an attempt to lure a new activist generation and emerging American demographics, much in the same way that new, so-called millennial-focused outlets like Pivot and Fusion have tried.

“Shift” represents “a way to innovate, do things differently and find out what works,” said Griffin, adding, “I don’t want to call it a farm system. It’s a place where we get to experiment, and I guarantee you, stuff is going to pop.”

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