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Ronan Farrow Charts New Course At MSNBC

The roving news correspondent worked his sources in Paris for days, with nary a chance to eat. His efforts paid off, with a couple of exclusive interviews with interesting people affected by the tragic Charlie Hebdo murders.  Next he had to prepare to meet with whistleblowers in the United States who were ready to slip him damning details about the way the nation’s government treats its veterans.

Was it CNN’s Anderson Cooper? CBS’ Scott Pelley? ABC’s David Muir? No, this was Ronan Farrow.

If that name is surprising, well, MSNBC hopes it won’t be going forward.  Farrrow’s MSNBC program, “Ronan Farrow Daily,” has been dogged by cancellation rumors for months (though none of them have proven out) and that speculation that has been bolstered by the program’s decidedly lackluster ratings. But MSNBC has plans for the Rhodes Scholar and former Obama foreign policy official whose youth (he is under 30) and family background (he is the son of actress Mia Farrow) have brought an extreme degree of attention to his fledgling effort in the world of cable-news.

“It’s about diving in deep,” says Farrow during a recent interview while reporting in Paris. His goal is to travel to places where big stories erupt, then find underreported facets, like discovering individuals whose lives have been changed by the news.  He really enjoys “finding the human piece to tell the bigger story and push forward the narrative,” he says.

MSNBC executives acknowledge Farrow’s daytime program has not won in the viewership game, but suggest they see potential, both for TV and for grabbing attention from viewers who watch the news in new ways. Farrow has proven skilled in nabbing interviews with everyone from Mitt Romney to Angelina Jolie to Jeannette Bougrab, the partner of slain Charlie Hebdo editor Stephane Charbonnier, who gave a heart-wrenching account of life in the days after the terrorist attack on that publication.  “I worked every angle and every connection that I had and ever worked with in government, and knew through random online connections,” Farrow says of his work to secure interviews while in France.

These kinds of exchanges, executives suggest, spread quickly on social media and generate digital impressions that are likely to be valuable as viewers rely on connections other than cable subscriptions to gain access to video.  In 2013, according to the Pew Research Journalism Project, 82% of Americans said they got news on a desktop or laptop, while 54% said they got news on a mobile device. Pew said 35% reported that they get news in this way “frequently” on their desktop or laptop, and 21% from a mobile phone or tablet.

“We have to look beyond cable ratings,” says Izzy Povich, vice president of talent and development at MSNBC, in an interview, adding , “Ronan is somebody who really can be a content provider on different platforms, and I do think that’s the future of where we are headed.”

Even so, viewership for “Ronan Farrow Daily” has been disappointing. In some months since the program launched, it has not been able to attract on average even 50,000 viewers between 25 and 54, the audience most desired by advertisers in news programming, according to Nielsen data. In contrast, Farrow’s  feed on Twitter has 272,000 followers.  In December, “Ronan Farrow Daily” lured an average of 206,000 viewers overall, according to Nielsen, and 41,000 in the demo. Rival programs on Fox News Channel and CNN performed significantly better.

MSNBC’s plan sprouts alongside a January unveiling of a new streaming-video hub, Shift, which offers programming and personalities not typically seen on the cable outlet. Other TV-news networks are trying similar stuff. CBS News has launched CBSN, a daily broadcast sent via streaming video that emulates something one might see on a cable network. In both cases, the media outlets are stocking the venture with new talent and contributions from staff already in place.

The anchor says he’s just getting the opportunities he has craved after working hard to establish himself in a new milieu since the launch of his program last February. “It’s a completely hectic, makeshift process. You are building the airplane at the same time you are flying it,” he says of getting started on his own hour-long show.  Even so, he’s had the same aspiration since he began on MSNBC: “I want to be on the ground and connecting with people, and I want that to really be reflected on the show.” Still, he acknowledges, “you can’t just jump into the deep end like that. You’ve got to earn your stripes.”

Indeed, Farrow has put a lot of focus on fundamentals,  says Kathy O’Hearn, executive producer of “Ronan Farrow Daily, and a TV-news veteran who has executive-produced “This Week with George Stephanopulos” on ABC and “Topic A,” an interview show built around Tina Brown, at CNBC. “He just gets better every day,” she says. “The arc has been learning the mechanics of it, the judgment calls.”

In recent months, Farrow has had more of an opportunity to get out of the studio. He visited Dallas to cover the recent Ebola outbreak there. He traveled to the Midwest to examine terrorist recruitment in the United States, and spent a week in the western U.S. to look at life around the U.S. border, embedding with agents from U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

He is also trying to do work that requires more depth of reportage. In December, Farrow launched an investigative series, “Inside the V.A.,” based on his follow-up of a 2009 NBC News investigative report looking at how 10,000 U.S. veterans may have been infected with viruses during routine colonoscopies due to mistakes made in cleaning and configuring equipment. He is working with NBC News’ investigative unit to track what he calls “the human cost of having to grapple with dysfunctional medical care. It’s a really horrible story.”

Farrow’s increased presence from sundry locales is part of a broader MSNBC strategy to get its anchors out from behind their desks and out to where news is breaking. The network, known for its tilt toward the liberal and progressive side of the political aisle, has seen ratings slump in recent months and has made strides to broaden the issues it tackles.

The intense spotlight that was put on his program when he first started was overwhelming, Farrow says: “That’s the understatement of the year” (Some viewers may have tuned in to see if he would comment on allegations made by his sister last February in The New York Times about alleged sexual abuse by filmmaker Woody Allen, her adoptive father who is said to be Farrow’s father and who denied the allegations).  Viewers may not have been aware he was taking a new step in a journey that has often included interesting paths, such as a degree from Yale Law School and founding the U.S. State Department’s Office of Global Youth Issues.

“If you look at my career, such as it is, I wanted to go strike out, do something totally different from the family I grew up in, to do something worthwhile that I care about, make things better, stand apart in that way,” says Farrow. “The scrutiny is something out of my control. It’s not the easiest thing to deal with, I’ll be completely honest, but there are a lot of worse crosses to bear.”

Meanwhile, MSNBC would like to see his show perform better on TV. “I’m not satisfied” with the ratings, says O’Hearn, who believes Farrow is gaining an audience and making a name for himself in other ways. “The scrutiny has been a challenge, but we are hopefully out from under that right now. The kinds of things we have been doing have had a tremendous amount of feedback. A series from “Ronan Farrow Daily” called “Transgender Society,” has been nominated for an award by GLAAD, the advocacy organization for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender communities.

Farrow intends to press forward. “It’s a lot of hard work getting into the nitty-gritty and talking to everyone and never sleeping and not really eating,” he notes. To stand out in the modern TV-news landscape, that level of activity may be de rigueur.

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