Ronan Farrow: Awesome on Twitter, Awful

Ronan Farrow has the kind of resume that’s difficult to match. He graduated from college at the tender age of 15; went on to collect degrees from Yale Law School and Oxford U., the latter on a Rhodes scholarship; and worked at the U.S. House Committee on Foreign Affairs and for the Obama administration.

Impressive as all that is, none of those credentials finishes among the top three reasons MSNBC gave him his own show last month. In ascending order, they are: the endless promotional value that comes with his being the progeny of Mia Farrow; his movie-star good looks; and most important of all … he’s awesome on Twitter.

That may sound trivial, but to think otherwise is naive. There are plenty of policy wonks out there with resumes that can fill a phone book, but very few of them boast a built-in audience on the strength of their online personality.

Farrow somehow manages to be a combination of funny, charming or insightful in every single tweet without the usual mistake Twitter stars make: They just plain overdo it.

Which makes it all the more mystifying that MSNBC’s savvy move to bring him to TV has turned out to be such a dud, drawing mostly negative reviews.

It’s an interesting test case in the tricky translation to a different platform of a star best known in social media. The logic behind making such a conversion seems as sound as it is simple: Bringing over someone with a powerful direct connection to 238,000 followers gives a TV show a running start in the ratings. But somewhere on the way to TV, Farrow’s appeal got lost.

That said, neither he nor the nature of Twitter is principally at fault.

Sure, before the man so much as opened his mouth, his face seemed to bear some blame. His eerie resemblance to his alleged is-he-or-isn’t-he father Frank Sinatra is a distraction. Or maybe Farrow is just too damned handsome; those limpid pools he calls eyeballs are so mesmerizing it’s easy to lose track of what he’s saying.

But being too telegenic isn’t really the problem here. In his opening weeks on the air, Farrow has seemed tentative and ill at ease, prone to stumbling on his words. More to the point, he just doesn’t resemble the guy who is so dazzling on social media.

But concluding that the kind of personality that succeeds on Twitter is just a totally different animal than the type conducive to good TV would be wrong. Because it’s actually MSNBC that needs to fall on its sword for failing Farrow; the network put him in a format that doesn’t capture the essence of his Twitter persona.

Cable news basically has two different types of personality-driven shows. The first is where the anchor takes a backseat to the commentator he or she is interviewing. The job is to tee up the topic at hand and ask intelligent questions, but to otherwise get out of the way and let the news be the star. That’s the format MSNBC gave Farrow, and it’s the wrong one.

What the network should have done was give him the kind of forum that makes people like Keith Olbermann or Bill O’Reilly famous, in which the questioner and commentator are essentially the same person; those they interview are really just furniture. It’s here where Farrow could have employed the wit and opinion he puts to such good use on Twitter, but is totally muffled in his current vehicle.

It’s not too late for MSNBC to make the kind of switch that will allow Farrow to recapture his voice. If the network is simply hoping that with enough air time he won’t come off so green, that would represent a fundamental misunderstanding of what isn’t working. There’s no sense in tapping talent from social media if the TV world can’t recreate the kind of environment that made that talent so compelling in the first place.

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