One of the nation’s best known outlets for news has started to offer less of it.
MSNBC has defined itself for the past few years by using the bulk of its daytime schedule to air breaking reports from NBC News personnel on the news of the moment, then amping up analysis and progressive opinion-making in the early afternoon and evening. Now, as media companies intensify their efforts to attract audiences via streaming video, the business behind the TV home of Joe Scarborough and Nicolle Wallace is in flux.
Three different people familiar with the relationship between NBC News and MSNBC — each outlet is supervised by a different top manager — say that some NBC News correspondents have been directed to bring breaking-news coverage first to NBC News Now, the company’s ad-supported streaming news service, or other digital NBC News properties before any appearance on MSNBC is considered. An NBC News spokesperson says no division-wide directive relating to such matters has been issued.
Still, as NBC News seeks to break the latest details, MSNBC has been trimming back its news offerings in favor of opinion-led programs. On Monday, “Morning Joe” took over a fourth hour of the daytime schedule, edging out a 9 a.m. news hour that had been anchored by Stephanie Ruhle (who now anchors MSNBC’s 11 p.m. wrap-up. “The 11th Hour.”). On weekends, an early-morning hour once devoted to news coverage has been taken over by repeats of opinion programs that run on the NBCU streaming hub Peacock, and that slot will soon be the province of a new opinion host, Katie Phang. Symone Sanders, a former aide to the campaigns of President Joe Biden and Senator Bernie Sanders, will hold forth in a weekend hour previously anchored by Yamin Vossoughian.
To be sure, MSNBC still has news programming, and has in recent months worked to ensure viewers identify it more readily. Straight news shows like those delivered by Andrea Mitchell and others are packaged under graphics that read “MSNBC Reports.” Ali Velshi has been on the ground in Ukraine for days, delivering affecting reports from that war-torn country. At the same time, the news programs have been in some transition. Brian Williams, who had been assigned to break into scheduled programming to anchor moments of big import, left MSNBC at the end of 2021. Craig Melvin, who also co-anchors NBC News’ “Today,” last week left an 11 a.m. hour he anchored on MSNBC.
The moves show how quickly the business of streaming is reworking some of the most traditional parts of news operations. MSNBC has in recent years burnished its news bona fides, with a promotional campaign showing newsy on-air moments paired with the slogan, “This Is Who We Are.” Prominent NBC News correspondents like Chuck Todd, Katy Tur and Hallie Jackson lead daytime hours of their own. Yet TV’s streaming wars are shaking up NBCUniversal’s news portfolio, creating a new push behind direct-to-consumer offerings at CNBC and pushing NBC News and MSNBC along decidedly different business trajectories.
Under NBC News President Noah Oppenheim, executives are funneling more resources into NBC News Now. The company poached Tom Llamas from ABC News to serve as the central anchor of the streamer’s evening lineup, and added hours led by Hallie Jackson and Joshua Johnson. NBC News has also spent time trying to out-market WarnerMedia’s push behind the launch of the subscription-based service CNN Plus, with NBC pointing out its efforts are free and distributed widely (The new CNN service is not currently available on Roku).
Under President Rashida Jones, success in streaming for MSNBC is being defined differently. NBCUniversal recently unveiled its decision to make some of MSNBC’s most popular opinion programs available to subscribers of its Peacock streaming hub a day after they air on cable, along with new specials led by hosts such as Wallace and Rachel Maddow.
The result: NBC News is operating with the mindset that it needs to generate video views for NBC News Now, while MSNBC has been tasked with getting consumers to take out new subscriptions for Peacock.
One of the people familiar with the situation suggests the moves could conjure up memories of another era when NBC News producers were wary of pairing their anchors and correspondents with MSNBC personnel. As MSNBC increases the number of opinion programs, the NBC News correspondents on its air in the daytime face the awkward prospect of being surrounded by vociferous hosts and guests taking a more aggressive tone.
MSNBC has reason to cast about for new revenue. The economics of the network have long been viewed as weaker than those of rivals CNN or Fox News Channel. MSNBC is projected to take in $891.1 million in advertising revenue and affiliate fees in 2022, according to Kagan, a market-research firm that is part of S&P Global Intelligence. Fox News Channel, meanwhile, is seen luring more than $2.7 billion next year, while CNN is predicted to capture nearly $1.8 billion.
Opinion shows typically cost less than their newsy counterparts, which may send anchors and correspondents to points of conflict. “Opinion shows stoke controversy, and therefore viewers and ratings,” says Mark Feldstein, chair of the broadcast journalism program at University of Maryland. “With 24 hours a day, there’s certainly room for news programming on cable TV– but not the appetite for it among news executives. Why? News coverage is expensive to produce. It requires reporters, producers, videographers, foreign bureaus, and travel. In contrast, opinion is cheap to produce–all it takes is getting a few publicity-hungry gasbags to come into the TV studio and flap their lips about the controversy of the day.”
CNN has, under the command of former president Jeff Zucker, given anchors and correspondents more leeway to express their opinion and passion around issues of the day (observers are waiting to see if changes in tone are put into practice in noticeable fashion by Discovery, which is expected to buy parent WarnerMedia next week). And Fox News Channel has assembled a five-hour block in early evening and primetime of opinion programs.
MSNBC has dabbled before with a lineup that is heavier in opinion and analysis. Phil Griffin, the longtime head of MSNBC who retired in early 2020, once dreamed of a streaming counterpart to MSNBC that would take the network into areas such as sports, economics, green lifestyle and issues important to women. In 2014, the network launched “Shift,” a streaming hub that enlisted anchors such as Josh Barro, Janet Mock, Tony Dokoupil, Krystal Ball and Beth Fouhy. “We are going to broaden the aperture, but keep the sensibility,” Griffin told Variety at the time, when he was also positioning the cable network as a place to reach a younger, activist generation with early-afternoon programming led by Joy Reid and Ronan Farrow. Shift wasn’t given long to make its move.
Griffin’s plans were reversed when Andy Lack returned to NBCUniversal in 2015 to oversee MSNBC and NBC News. MSNBC’s daytime schedule was soon stacked with blocks of traditional news coverage led by Thomas Roberts and Kate Snow, then others. Reid and Farrow were removed from the weekday daytime schedule, as were longtime MSNBC personalities Ed Schultz and Reverend Al Sharpton.
MSNBC’s opinion plans face challenges. Rachel Maddow, the linchpin of the network’s primetime schedule, is on a hiatus to tackle other projects under a new arrangement with NBCUniversal. While she is expected to return for a block of time, those ventures are seen taking up the bulk of her activity in the not-too-distant future and her absence has affected viewership patterns. Still, the network has launched several new opinion anchors in recent months, including Ayman Mohyeldin. Mehdi Hasan, and Zerlina Maxwell, and hired others such as Alex Wagner. In addition to Symone Sanders, MSNBC is expected to sign another Democratic operative, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki, to a new deal that could encompass both a weekend opinion program and a streaming effort.
At least one news anchor seems to be thriving amid MSNBC’s transition. Chris Jansing, a news veteran who is an MSNBC senior national correspondent also assigned to anchor big breaking news stories, has recently found herself in increased demand. She is getting more air time by filling in at various hours that have been in transition after anchors depart or amid schedule changes.