NBCUniversal tried to harness two Fox News anchors in the recent past and failed. Now the company no doubt hopes the third time’s the charm.
The company’s CNBC on Wednesday evening launched former Fox News daytime anchor Shepard Smith in a new 7 p.m. news hour that, as Smith himself described it, aims to give viewers “journalists and experts, not opinions and pundits.” The business-news network clearly has some ambition for the new program. It hired a well-known producer, Molly Kordares, from “CBS Evening News,” lured Sally Ramirez, a top news executive from a major-market CBS affiliate in Houston, and assigned one of its veterans, Sandy Cannold, to oversee the project.
Several Fox News personalities who have left that outlet have gained new recognition for their newsgathering or anchoring skills, including Major Garrett and Catherine Herridge at CBS News and Alisyn Camerota at CNN. But NBC News has found the task of weaving Fox News anchors into its fabric more difficult. Greta Van Susteren, who held forth in Fox News primetme for fourteen years, but found tougher terrain at MSNBC, where an early-evening program she launched was on the air for just six months. Megyn Kelly, whose star soared while anchoring a primetime show at Fox News, had a tumultuous era at NBC News, where she was asked to anchor both a Sunday newsmagazine and a morning program.
Based on his debut this evening, Smith may find easier terrain. His new program, “The News with Shepard Smith” – a title also used once by Brian Williams for a similar program on MSNBC and CNBC – basically puts Smith back in the program he led at Fox News for many years, a 7 p.m. general-interest news hour that proved appealing for those info-highway aficionados who can’t get in front of a TV screen for the traditional network evening newscast. CNBC has scheduled the program with some care. At 7 p.m.,, Smith’s show won’t conflict with the main east-coast broadcast of “NBC Nightly News,” and a midnight repeat won’t clash with the last original program of the day from MSNBC, Brian Williams’ “The 11th Hour.”
Smith’s first show made use of a wide range of NBCU news personnel – a signal perhaps, of NBCUniversal’s recent consolidation of its news assets under a single executive, Cesar Conde. For the past several years, CNBC operated autonomously from NBC News and MSNBC, partially a result of a strained relationship between Mark Hoffman, CNBC’s president, and Andy Lack, the former chairman of NBC News and MSNBC. Those days seem to be gone: Smith’s show included on-the-ground coverage from NBC News personnel like Shaq Brewster and Dasha Burns, but also CNBC regulars like Jane Wells, Contessa Brewer and Eamon Javers. Even MSNBC veteran Steve Kornacki made a cameo.
As familiar as the format is for Smith, his “News” is leading CNBC down new paths.
For the past few years, the business-news network has ceded its evening schedule to strips of reality shows and documentary series like repeats of ABC’s “Shark Tank” or cycles of “Jay Leno’s Garage,” a series that touts the comedian’s interest in vintage automobiles. “The News” represents a way to extend the CNBC brand beyond Jim Cramer’s regular bouts of “Mad Money” – and may put a CNBC news program back under Nielsen scrutiny for the first time since late 2015. That’s when CNBC scrapped the use of Nielsen ratings as a measure of its daytime news audience, citing the measurement company’s inability to count viewers watching “Squawk Box” and other shows from trading floors and offices, and a desire to find other ways to sell its business programs to Madison Avenue.
Smith, who left Fox News Channel after clashing with that network’s primetime host Tucker Carlson, vowed to serve the news to CNBC viewers straight. He eschewed the use of a opening video montage Wednesday night, telling viewers that, “as it turns out, in this moment, that’s just the noise. You’ve heard it. And we need to cut through it.”
He will likely have to keep blasting away. CNBC hasn’t been part of the early-evening news fray in quite some time, and Smith will have to vie with Erin Burnett on CNN, Martha MacCallum on Fox News Channel and a repeat of Lou Dobbs on Fox Business Network – not to mention Joy Reid at sister outlet MSNBC.
Besides, in an era when viewers seem to gravitate more readily toward news with a view or political leaning, Smith may have hard work ahead. Nexstar Media Group has faced early headwinds for an ambitious news block it recently launched on WGN America. Its “News Nation” vows to serve the news without political shadings or bias, and it has not won big audiences in its first weeks on air – even when President Donald Trump gave the program an interview.
In the final moments of his first broadcast, Smith told viewers his show intended to deliver “thoughtful, honest reporting without favor or fear.” Now CNBC has to make sure it can gather enough people to receive it.