Symone D. Sanders spent a good portion of the past two years of her life touting the accomplishments of the Biden campaign and administration to TV-news personalities. Come Spring, she will be one of those pundits.
MSNBC has hired Sanders, who at age 32 has already worked as a media strategist in two different presidential campaigns and as the senior press spokesperson for U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris, to anchor a program that airs on cable during the weekends and on streaming video during some other days of the week. She’s the latest personality to join the NBCUniversal-backed cable-news outlet under a new top executive, Rashida Jones, as executives seek to gain traction in new-media spaces while facing turnover among some of the network’s most familiar personalities.
Going from the vicinity of the White House to a TV-news gig is a well-trod path for prominent White House aides. That’s the journey made by former Trump administration advisers, Larry Kudlow and Kayleigh McEnany, when they moved to Fox News Channel. Others, like George Stephanopoulos and Nicolle Wallace, have become fixtures for viewers of ABC News and MSNBC. But Sanders believes streaming is a growing and important component to get in front of younger audiences — her contemporaries.
“I wanted to be at a network that had an already established record in the streaming world and would have a show on streaming and on linear and was one that wasn’t just an experiment,” Sanders tells Variety in an interview, noting that reaching people who don’t live and breathe the ins-and-outs of Washington, D.C., means venturing beyond traditional media. A number of MSNBC’s newer hosts, including Mehdi Hasan and Ayman Mohyeldin, also lead shows that appear on both the cable-news network as well as “The Choice,” an MSNBC0-curated outlet on the streaming-video hub, Peacock. Meanwhile, MSNBC is filling some of its early weekend hours with repeats of shows from Hasan and Zerlina Maxwell that run first on streaming.
NBCUniversal News Group is aggressively working to counter the launch of CNN Plus, a new subscription-based streaming outlet from WarnerMedia slated to launch in the first quarter. In recent weeks, NBC News has run full-page ads in The Wall Street Journal and New York Times touting the fact that it already has a suite of streaming news services up and running that are ad-supported and free for news aficionados. Sanders’ new show is slated to launch by Spring, which is when CNN Plus is also expected to debut. Details about when Sanders’ new show might appear and its format will be decided in months to come.
“Every part of our brand is as important as the other,” says Jones, in an interview. Sanders will be able to deliver hard-won insight into the Biden administration and politics on both the cable network and its streaming counterpart, a strategy she says will help MSNBC “to reach more of an audience, as well as different audiences in new platforms.”
Sanders vows to lead a show that has a lot of personality. “I’m going to bring my whole self to this show. I am a young woman, a young woman of color. I’m a Black woman, a young Black woman form the Midwest, from Nebraska. Yes, I have done politics, but I’m also a consumer of pop culture,” she says. “I’m turning on the news in the car, but I’m also DVR-ing the ‘Housewives.’ There is a space for that to intersect.”
Sanders, who also held a prominent role during Senator Bernie Sanders’ push for the Oval Office in 2016, has caught the eye of news outlets in the past. She worked as a contributor for CNN before joining President Biden’s White House run for 2020. And she has been the subject of magazine profiles and is already the author of a memoir, “No, You Shut Up” (the title offers a response to a Republican contributor who told her to pipe down while appearing on CNN). She says she has been in discussions about possible corporate roles or TV jobs since announcing in December that she would step away from working with Harris, though she would not say whether CNN was one of her suitors.
MSNBC is in the midst of significant change. Brian Williams, the NBC News stalwart who led the network’s “11th Hour,” parted ways with the company at the end of 2021. Rachel Maddow, the linchpin of the MSNBC primetime lineup, is expected to give up many of her on-air duties to tend to a wider portfolio of production responsibilities under a new pact with NBCUniversal.
The network has also been tinkering regularly with its weekend schedule, where it faces heady competition. Most of CNN’s original weekend programming wins more viewers between the ages of 24 and 54 — the demographic most coveted by advertisers in news programs — than MSNBC’s offerings.
All three of the nation’s main cable-news offerings have grappling with shortfalls in viewership in the aftermath of the 2020 election and the migration of more news viewers to streaming video and social media. MSNBC saw its overall 25-to-54 audience in 2021 fall 38%, according to data from Nielsen, compared with 40% for CNN and 35% for Fox News Channel.
Giving a spotlight to new voices may help the network’s cause. Sanders “has been on our radar for a long time,” says Jones. “She has always been interesting and dynamic and smart.” The network approached her “as soon as we had an opportunity to sign her up.”
For Sanders, the MSNBC assignment fulfills a long-held dream. When she was young, Sanders says, she would grab a spoon or a fork to use as a microphone and pretend to be “Donna Burns,” a newscaster. “I don’t know where that came from,” she says.
She sees the new job as a weighty assignment. “Something very significant is afoot in the country right now,” she says, and she hopes to tell stories about why families feel hard-pressed to put food on their tables and make ends meet. “We have to tell lots of these stories, all of these stories, not just some of the stories,” she says. Her book opens in a few months.