MSNBC Has Much to Juggle as Brian Williams, Rachel Maddow Take Next Steps

Brian Williams Rachel Maddow NBC
Courtesy of NBC

MSNBC die-hards tune in partially because they know what they can expect on most evenings: Rachel Maddow will do her 22 minutes of connecting-the-dots news-cycle analysis at 9 p.m., and Brian Williams will wrap up the day with a vast array of knowledgeable experts at 11.

Starting next year, however, fans — and even the executives who run the place — can’t be sure what they’re going to get.

Williams announced Tuesday that he will walk away from MSNBC and NBC News after a near three-decade run, while Maddow is negotiating over a new production deal that could result in a significant scaling back of her primetime duties. The NBCUniversal-owned cable-news network needs to decide by the end of the year what they want to put in the slot currently known as “The 11th Hour,” and likely by May of next year, how they might replace Maddow in their primetime lineup. Under one plan being considered, Maddow would do a show once a week, though MSNBC is hoping to convince her to do more.

If executives have a plan, or even specific anchors that are being considered for new roles at night, they haven’t articulated it to many outside the newsroom (and even some of those in it).

One potential reason for the muted guidance is that much of MSNBC’s programming success has been serendipitous. Maddow first gained traction as a fill-in host for Keith Olbermann.  Members of the network’s “Morning Joe” franchise barely knew each other when they were thrown together in a bid to replace broadcasts of Don Imus’ morning radio program. Nicolle Wallace joined MSNBC as a contributor after parting ways with ABC’s “The View.” Early in the tenure of “11th Hour,” Williams billed his late-night appearances as “a pop up show” that would air nightly “from now until Election Day, when we will cancel ourselves.” Five years later, he’s still showing up — until December.

Meanwhile, some of MSNBC’s best-laid plans have gone awry. Consider early-afternoon programs from Ronan Farrow and Joy Reid that took an openly progressive view on the news cycle (both have gone on to have considerable better luck), or a weekend talk show led by actor Alec Baldwin that was scrapped after he became enmeshed in a gossipy altercation with reporters who were trying to cover a legal matter in which he was involved.

Many of those programming maneuvers took place in simpler times, when TV audiences were just that, and not prone to check out a streaming-video venue or a snippet of news delivered via social media.

Now MSNBC is navigating more difficult terrain. Like other cable networks, it’s grappling with viewer declines in the aftermath of the 2020 election. The dynamic is common; most news outlets see interest in their programs fade after a presidential run-off. But this occurs as media companies of all sorts are working their way through a new era when people are just as eager to seek out video news from their phone or a streaming FAST channel on a connected TV as they are to tune in to a cable-news mainstay. In October, MSNBC’s average primetime viewership among adults between the ages of 25 and 54 — the audience most desired by advertisers in news programs — was off 71%, according to Nielsen. Meanwhile, CNN’s declined 81%, and Fox News Channel’s was off by 65%.

MSNBC’s business also lags that of its two main competitors, and anchor changes have the potential to upset viewers’ tune-in habits. MSNBC is projected to generate $575 million in advertising in 2021, according to Kagan, a research unit of S&P Global Market Intelligence, compared with $884 million for Fox News Channel and $815 million for CNN. MSNBC also generates less money in distributor fees, according to Kagan, which predicts the network will get 35 cents per subscriber per month, compared with $2 for Fox and $1.06 for CNN.

Speaking during a conference held by the Paley Center Wednesday, Cesar Conde, who leads the NBCUniversal News Group, suggested Williams’ departure would open “incredible opportunities” for “the extraordinarily deep bench of talent that we have.” He did not identify specific anchors who might replace Williams or Maddow’s primetime slot. Ali Velshi, a popular MSNBC presence, has filled in for Williams in the past.

Under its new president, Rashida Jones, MSNBC has set up new anchors and scrutinizing whether they gain traction in traditional TV ratings or new kinds of digital measures. Mehdi Hasan and Ayman Mohyeldin have both launched programs that air on MSNBC during weekends and stream on some weekdays via The Choice, an MSNBC-backed channel on Peacock, NBCUniversal’s streaming hub.  Both anchors are active on social media, offering spirited takes on and rebukes to the news.

The announcement of Williams’ departure on Tuesday night may have surprised his viewers, but it has been in the works for several weeks, according to people familiar with the matter. The anchor’s current contract comes to an end after December, and he felt continuing the same job for several more years was less appealing than taking some time for himself and considering potential offers, according to these people. In TV-news circles, there is some speculation that Williams might want to try a longer-form talk-show format that would give him the chance to hold forth in less rapid-fire fashion with newsmakers and people of cultural interest. Williams has no immediate plans, according to people familiar with the matter, but could certainly consider such a prospect down the road.

There is also some question as to whether WarnerMedia’s CNN might want to get into business with Williams. CNN has poached several prominent NBC News employees in recent weeks to work on CNN Plus, a streaming service slated to debut in 2022. Among those tapped are Kasie Hunt, the former NBC News Capitol Hill correspondent; Jenn Suozzo, who supervised “NBC Nightly News”; and Allie Sandza, a producer at “Meet the Press.” A pair-up between Williams and CNN seems “unlikely” at present, according to a person familiar with the matter.

Devising succession behind Maddow is more complicated and could still hinge on the projects she takes on as part of her new deal, according to people familiar with the negotiations. Still, there is a sense — both inside the network and outside of it — that she could stop doing her 9 p.m. program five days a week starting in spring, potentially in May, sources said, unless her agents, MSNBC and NBCU can devise a workload she feels is sustainable.