NBC News Revives MSNBC Films to Bolster Documentary Ambitions (EXCLUSIVE)

President Barack Obama walks along the
Courtesy of NBC News

MSNBC dishes up dozens of short news segments to its viewers over the course of a single day. Now the network may have a chance to go long.

The cable-news outlet will air “The Way I See It,” a documentary about former White House photographer Pete Souza (above, pictured), on Friday, October 9 at 10 p.m. eastern, after Rachel Maddow’s broadcast that night. The film, from corporate sibling Focus Features, will first be released in theaters on September 18, and will be co-presented by MSNBC Films – a revived moniker that spotlights some of NBCUniversal’s growing ambitions in the long-form space.

Executives see MSNBC Films as a place for top filmmakers to collaborate on “in-depth storytelling about important events,” says Liz Cole, president of NBC News Studios, the production unit of NBC News, in an interview. “High-stakes drama, humor, insight into the country’s cultural divide, iconic personalities, economic ups and downs – these are all things that feel really connected to what the MSNBC viewer is interested in, and what the MSNBC brand is all about.”

As traditional TV viewers become harder to lure, many media companies are venturing into documentaries, which they can air as “event” programming on linear networks, but also make available on streaming outlets when individuals have a more immediate craving. CBS News has run a bevy of documentaries on its CBSN live-streaming outlet. ABC News in 2019 turned “20/20” into a showcase for in-depth two-hour probes into everything from the life of actor Robert Blake to the downfall of tele-evangelists Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker. And Fox News Channel has crafted documentary series for its Fox Nation streaming service.

But no news outlet has committed to the format quite like CNN. Under the banner of CNN Films, the AT&T owned media company has been a regular presence at film festivals and worked to acquire or commission projects to which it can control TV rights. Among the films with which CNN has been associated are “Blackfish,” which probed the controversy over captive killer whales; “RBG,” a look at the life of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg; and “Glen Campbell: I’ll Be Me,” a candid examination of how the country singer dealt with Alzheimer’s disease while trying to complete a farewell tour. In 2019, CNN helped produce a documentary looking at the life of singer Linda Ronstadt that included her cooperation – not an easy thing to secure.

Asked whether she sees MSNBC Films as a rival to CNN’s documentary efforts, Cole says, “So, it’s a tiny bit premature to fully answer that. Come back to me in a month or two and I’ll give you a better answer or two.” She noted that NBC News Studios has enlisted producer Julie Cohen, one of the forces behind the Ginsburg documentary, who is “taking some material from the ‘Dateline’ archives going back 15 years and using the source material as the basis for a really interesting documentary series we are about to bring out to market.”

CNN did not respond to a query asking about the number and types of projects CNN Films might be involved with over the next several months.

The documentary effort could be the latest front in a long-simmering skirmish between AT&T and NBCUniversal owner Comcast in the news arena. Both NBC News and CNN have in recent years hired veteran journalists to produce coverage of business, technology, and politics for digital venues. Both have launched podcasts from top anchors like Rachel Maddow, Chris Hayes and Don Lemon.  Earlier this year, NBC News ventured into a global-news operation that would have challenged CNN, which has long operated a network for international audiences, but has recently pulled back on some of that outlet’s original content. NBCUniversal shelved its effort as it grappled with the coronavirus pandemic.

“NBC News Studios is part of our ongoing expansion into new modes of storytelling, reaching new audiences,” says Noah Oppenheim, president of NBC News.  “We’ve set the bar high – both in terms of the content and the quality of our partners – and plan to keep it there as we explore a variety of new genres, always staying grounded in the extraordinary journalism of NBC News.”

To bolster its initiative, NBC News Studios has hired veteran producer Molly O’Brien to oversee its premium documentary business. O’Brien was the chief operating officer and executive producer at Fork Films, a company that works to produce nonfiction media about overlooked people and subjects. As O’Brien sees it, her job is to connect  directors and creators with NBC News assets. “There is an 80-year-old audio and visual archive. There are investigative journalists. There are fixers around the world. There are lawyers and archival producers – all kinds of resources that filmmakers use that they always have to rely on themselves for,” she says. “We can surround them with the resources of a large news operation.”

MSNBC has clear space for longer-form programming. The network’s Saturday and Sunday nights are largely filled by repeats of its weekday prime lineup, while its rivals air original programming. New documentaries could also stream on Peacock, the company’s ad-supported broadband outlet, if the appropriate rights deal were devised. NBC News Studios, formed earlier this year, is developing content for both NBCUniversal-owned outlets and other venues, and also houses the company’s production work for short-form video hub Quibi.

“The Way I See It,” the first documentary in the new effort, has a prestigious pedigree. Dawn Porter, the director, was the guiding hand behind “Good Trouble,” the recent documentary on civil rights activist and former U.S. Representative John Lewis, who died in July. It is produced by Evan Hayes, who had a hand in the popular 2018 documentary “Free Solo,” as well as Laura Dern and Jayme Lemons, who are partners in Jaywalker Pictures.

“As a huge fan of MSNBC’s political coverage, I’m thrilled that this film will air on such a prestigious platform,” says Porter. “With this addition to our roll-out, we will reach such an important audience. I only hope I get to meet Rachel Maddow.”

MSNBC Films isn’t an entirely new concept. The shingle was used between 2008 and 2015 for a range of documentary projects, including one in which Maddow explored the death of Dr. George Tiller. This new iteration is meant to establish a different model: one in which the projects are viewed as premium works made in partnership with revered filmmakers. “Hopefully,” says Cole, “we will find some other projects that we get in much earlier and maybe co-produce.”