In late August, the gang on MSNBC’s Morning Joe was discussing a Quinnipiac University poll that asked voters for the first word they associated with various presidential candidates. The top word for Hillary Clinton was “liar”; for Donald Trump, “arrogant”; for Jeb Bush, “Bush.” After everyone had riffed on just how bad the word “Bush” is, the show’s conservative co-host and alpha dog, Joe Scarborough, complained that he’s been the subject of this sort of poll question, too.
“What were some of the worst [responses]?” co-host Mika Brzezinski asked.
“‘He works for MSNBC,’” replied Scarborough, who has long felt trapped in liberal-media hell. “That’s always the worst.
“Not anymore, though, ’cause things have changed,” he added, brightening up. “Thank you, Andy.”
That’s Andy Lack, the NBC News and MSNBC chairman who, since taking over in April, has wiped out all of MSNBC’s daytime liberal opinion shows that network president Phil Griffin hadn’t already cancelled..* The idea, the network says, is to rebrand dayside as an extension of NBC News. As for prime time, Rachel Maddow and Chris Matthews will keep their shows, but the future of Chris Hayes’s All In and Lawrence O’Donnell’s Last Word are up in the air.
MSNBC will also reportedly expand Morning Joe, a show with low ratings but an influential Beltway audience, from three to four hours a day. The extra hour would give center-right and center-left opinion shows roughly equal airtime on the network that’s considered the left’s best answer to the mighty Fox News.
So if Joe Scarborough, who regularly browbeats any libber ooze out of his co-hosts and guests, is thrilled with the changes at MSNBC, where does that leave progressives? Should we mourn that, along with Jon Stewart’s exit, one of the few venues for daily progressive politics on TV is, at best, shrinking? Or should we shrug—since how much of a force for lefty ideas can any corporate-owned commercial entity truly be?
One thing is clear: MSNBC’s parade of liberal anchors over the past several years—all pretty much following the same host-desk-panel formula—tanked in the ratings game. In the first quarter of this year, MSNBC’s numbers in the desirable 25-to-54 sales demographic hit an all-time low, dropping 39 percent compared to the same period in 2014. In February, the low-rated Joy Reid and Ronan Farrow shows were axed. In July, it was Now With Alex Wagner, The Cycle, and Ed Schultz’s The Ed Show. Reid, Farrow, Wagner, and The Cycle’s Ari Melber landed other gigs at the network; Ed Schultz, the only consistent voice for labor on all of television, did not. Al Sharpton’s Monday-to-Friday show has been squeezed to just one hour: 8 am on Sundays. (It’s all good, the reverend claims: “I wanted to be Dr. Martin Luther King, not Larry King.”)
Daytime now showcases NBC crossovers. Andrea Mitchell and The Today Show’s Tamron Hall have kept their shows; Thomas Roberts, NBC Sunday-night anchor Kate Snow, and Chuck Todd fill out the day. A chastened Brian Williams, formerly the star anchor for NBC’s nightly news show, has been demoted (though the network won’t call it that) to work as a floating, “breaking news” anchor on the cable outlet.
For now, it looks like MSNBC’s weekends will remain a den of liberal iniquity. Melissa Harris-Perry is expected to keep her show, and Sharpton has his Sunday hour. The election-savvy Steve Kornacki will pinch-hit for Todd on Mondays and deliver more political coverage throughout the week, and Alex Wagner will host a weekend show in his time slot.
This means that on weekends, MSNBC will continue to feature a diverse group of hosts, though they’ve nearly vanished from the rest of the cable network’s schedule. MSNBC’s weekday and prime-time hosts had been the most racially diverse in the business. But now, out of the network’s 16-plus hours of programming a day, only two are led by people of color: José Diaz-Balart and Tamron Hall. Maybe MSNBC plans to fix that when it fills Sharpton’s 6 pm slot, but for now the weekdays are looking awfully white.
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OK, that’s all a huge shake-up, but in itself it’s no putsch. After all, MSNBC has had straight-news daytime lineups before while running the lefty Maddow and Keith Olbermann at night. It’s true that Hayes and O’Donnell are “under the microscope,” an MSNBC insider told me, but “not in the service of getting away from a progressive” sensibility. “MSNBC has carved out an important space in terms of its perspective and opinion; it’s unique, and we plan on continuing that for prime time,” this person said, adding that if Hayes and O’Donnell are booted, their replacements will be “in their vein.”
You want proof? Not only are the suits keeping Maddow, who pulls MSNBC’s highest numbers (she often beats Anderson Cooper on CNN, although Fox’s Megyn Kelly crushes them both), but they won’t rule out bringing back Olbermann. “I’ve heard plenty of people I know to be credible who say that Andy would be open to it, given the right conditions,” a different MSNBC insider told me. Of course, since the “right conditions” might never materialize, any talk of Olbermann’s return could be a feint. But the point is that MSNBC wants big names with ratings punch, and being a lib is not necessarily a problem.
“I don’t think Andy or anyone else in the corporation has a problem with high-rated liberal content,” my source said. The issue is rather the overall impact of remaking MSNBC in NBC’s image. “The message from the top is that NBC and MSNBC share one set of values—as of today. If that’s the guideline,” the source added, “that sets a different tone.”
Mainstream news standards, which turn on he-said/she-said attempts at “balance,” can eclipse the truth. But MSNBC’s he-opined/she-opined standards, especially in daytime, had become boring: one uninspired if liberal show after another, all of them indistinguishable, featuring the same stories, the same guests, but different hosts. And, ultimately, boring hurts the left—it always has. Poor ratings don’t prove that progressive thought is unpopular, just that MSNBC had become predictable. Function followed format, and the format was flat.
This wasn’t inevitable. In fact, one of MSNBC’s most popular shows was born by cracking open the formula. Up With Chris Hayes debuted in September 2011, offering two hours of nuanced, complex, and often surprising political talk every Saturday and Sunday morning. The New York Times called Hayes “Generation Y’s wonk prince of the morning political talk-show circuit.” Hayes, The Nation’s editor at large, created an exciting new habitat: He brought on academics, little-known activists, and still-lesser-known “regular” people affected by DC policies. He told his guests, “The first and foremost important rule of the show: We’re not on television—no talking points, no sound bites.”
Ratings were good, and social media even better. MSNBC president Phil Griffin was so happy with Up that, in February 2012, he added Melissa Harris-Perry (then a Nation columnist) to the weekend, and a year later moved Hayes to the showcase 8 pm slot (at which point Kornacki took over as the host of Up).
Sadly, that’s when the straitjacket of the one-hour format began to tighten. Hayes continues to push beyond talking points in his prime-time show (All In was MSNBC’s only show to win an Emmy this year), but too often the whole presentation feels rushed.
Still, with Up, Hayes—as well as Maddow, who busts conventions in other ways, like starting her show with uninterrupted, 18-minute-long stories—proves that progressives can thrive on cable news. The MSNBC overhaul doesn’t mean that lefty politics can’t survive in mass media, but what it does indicate is that new ideas and formats need to come from a new generation of producers who can take us beyond cable’s Big Three.
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In fact, over the last several years, a whole world of more or less progressive TV news has emerged—streaming, on demand, on mobile, and, increasingly, on cable TV itself. Vice News, Fusion, and Free Speech TV are available on cable and satellite, as are Al Jazeera America and Russia Today.
As for web TV, HuffPost Live now streams eight hours of original programming a day. Cenk Uygur’s nightly show The Young Turks is one of the most-watched online news shows in the world, having racked up more than 2 billion views on YouTube. Even MSNBC is producing its own digital alt-news channel, the assertively lowercased shift by msnbc.
The flurry of news sources is part of a larger, perhaps counterintuitive, wave of digital media rushing to produce old-media TV fare. It’s a trend that Michael Wolff captures in the title of his new book, Television Is the New Television: The Unexpected Triumph of Old Media in the Digital Age. Media companies don’t want to bet on one platform to the exclusion of others. As Wade Beckett, Fusion’s chief programming officer, told me: “The opportunity for us is that we are seeing a lot of activity from digital-media companies trying to get on TV, and legacy-media companies trying to buy a way into growing digital audiences.”
With a few exceptions, most of these news sources aim dead-on at young demographics (or, as a friend of mine calls it, “news with tattoos”). We’re not talking about the traditionally coveted 25-to-54 “demo,” but about the even more coveted millennials, loosely defined as between the ages of 18 and 34. (The median age for Fox viewers is 68; for MSNBC, 61; CNN is break- dancing at 58.)
These newer outlets aren’t often explicitly political. Few are as obsessed with Beltway or horse-race politics (or plane crashes) as CNN, FOX, and MSNBC. Their progressivism tends to be more embedded in their emphasis on activism, diversity, and environmental issues, and in deep-dig cultural reporting.
Or, in the case of Vice, in a dude-against-the-machine ethos.
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Vice News is making the most ambitious entry into TV news. Before the end of the year, it expects to launch a daily half-hour newscast on HBO, as well as on the streaming service HBO Now. That’s in addition to expanding its Emmy-winning weekly HBO series from 14 to 35 episodes a year through 2018.
Under the headline “HBO-Vice Deal Should Scare the S*** Out of TV News,” Variety co-editor-in-chief Andrew Wallenstein calls the daily newscast “groundbreaking.” Vice’s deeply immersive, sneakers-on-the-ground style of reporting could, Wallenstein writes, “reinvigorate the whole notion of being a news brand, and make it relevant to younger audiences in a way that’s not just commercially viable but truly vital to a democracy dependent on an informed citizenry.”
Whew. Those are big expectations, even for Vice’s gonzo co-founder Shane Smith. The late, great media critic David Carr once thought Smith’s promises that Vice News would become “the next CNN” and “the next MTV” were “outrageous.” By 2014, however, Carr allowed that those claims “are becoming truer every passing day.” Citing a Peabody Award–winning series, The Islamic State, and Simon Ostrovsky’s “remarkable dispatches” from Ukraine, Carr wrote, “I’m just glad that someone’s willing to do the important work of bearing witness, the kind that can get you killed if something goes wrong.” (In August, Turkish authorities arrested three Vice journalists, charging them with aiding terrorists. The two British journalists, Jake Hanrahan and Philip Pendlebury, were released last month; Mohammed Ismael Rasool, an Iraqi journalist based in Turkey, is still being held.)
Fusion, a cable and digital network launched almost two years ago, is still reaching for Vice’s moxie. The original idea behind Fusion, jointly owned by Univision and ABC, was to attract young Latinos whose first language is English. But finding that focus too constricting, Fusion soon branched out to target all millennials—a generation so vast and diverse (its 83 million members far exceed the boomers’ 75.4 million) that, as The New York Times wrote in a piece about Fusion’s struggles, its members “sometimes seem united only in the dreams of marketers.” Programming chief Beckett acknowledges that the network is “still in an awareness-building stage.”
Fusion TV does have a powerful draw: Univision’s immensely popular Jorge Ramos. In his first English-language newscast, he hosts Fusion’s weekly America With Jorge Ramos. Who can forget that Donald Trump recently had him physically removed from a news conference, telling Ramos (who holds dual Mexican/US citizenship), “Go back to Univision”?
But most of Fusion’s news coverage comes via investigative documentaries (like the Emmy-nominated Pimp City, on sex trafficking in the United States). Weekly series include The Cannabusiness Report and Drug Wars. Fusion has won one GLAAD award and was nominated for another for its reporting on LGBT issues. “Fusion,” says Beckett, “is hell-bent on standing up for individuality and diversity in today’s America by telling under- reported stories.”
In a promo for her news and culture talk show Come Here and Say That, Alicia Menendez, formerly of HuffPost Live (and the daughter of Senator Robert Menendez), both enacted and spoofed the industry obsession with the millennial market. “Upper management asked me to do a promo and say how frequently I use Twitter and Instagram,” she said. “I’m in your pants whenever you want.” Of course, she meant she’s on the smartphone in your pocket, but the sex and devices and rock-and-roll point is made.
Probably the most social-media-ized of the alt-newscasts is HuffPost Live. Remarkably, it had hosted some 28,000 guests from more than 100 countries in its three years. It’s done this, co-creator Roy Sekoff tells me, by upending the sort of dull talk-show conventions that MSNBC’s liberal dayside had embraced. With Skype and Google Hangout, “we redefined what an expert is. If you have skin in the game, you’re an expert.” Instead of flipping through a “golden Rolodex,” he says, “we have our people scour social media and ask, ‘Would you like to come on and expand on that?’”
Sekoff has put his finger on the stifling cable formats that are turning off younger viewers, not to mention older ones like me. “They literally get the same five people” to talk Trump or the Iran deal or China, Sekoff complains. “We don’t do that.”
HuffPost Live is also breaking convention by allowing shows to run longer if the conversation gets interesting and also by rotating hosts. “We’re not personality-driven,” Sekoff says. And while that doesn’t always make for compelling viewing, it does seem to be working by at least one measure: HuffPost Live, Sekoff says, is getting 100 million video views a month.
This should come as no surprise, but most of the news channels mentioned here are owned by enormous media corporations. Rupert Murdoch has a 5 percent stake in Vice, while the Disney- and Hearst-owned A&E has another 10 percent. Fusion’s ABC co-parent is also owned by Disney. Both Fusion and Vice have run up against their corporate grandparents’ strictures. According to The New York Times, Disney put Fusion “on notice” to avoid stories that could offend consumers—like those based on hacked e-mails from Sony. In negotiations with Vice, the Times wrote, Disney and Hearst insisted on a clause protecting them “in the event that Vice content ‘embarrasses Hearst or Disney in any way.’”
You also have to wonder how much net-neutrality champion Huffington Post will champ on now that it’s been bought by Verizon, one of the leading neutrality opponents. Same question goes for all of the news properties owned by media companies, including the Comcast-owned MSNBC, which has not been vigorously covering net neutrality.
This is one thing that sets Free Speech TV apart. “We’re not owned by a billionaire, a corporation, or a government. We are unbought and uncompromised in our ability to present a progressive view of the world,” says FSTV executive director Ron Williams.
Less millennial-centric than Vice or Fusion, the two-decade-old FSTV grew the old-fashioned way: by televising radio talk shows and gradually upping the visuals. So you can watch Democracy Now with Amy Goodman, shows with former Current TV hosts Stephanie Miller and Bill Press, and Ring of Fire with Mike Papantonio, Bobby Kennedy Jr., and Sam Seder. FSTV is trying to raise the funds to bring on Elon James White’s web series This Week in Blackness every weekday. And Thom Hartmann’s “Brunch With Bernie” segment has been airing for years, long before Sanders’s presidential bid.
Williams knows that you may not be aware of any of this. Up until recently, he says, “We didn’t market ourselves so well.” With 14 hours a day of live (or “near-live”) content, both on TV and streaming, FSTV outdoes HuffPost Live’s eight hours. But while the network is in 40 million homes, thanks largely to satellite providers DirecTV and Dish, it doesn’t yet have its own channel on a big-time cable provider.
For all its shortcomings, MSNBC remains the closest thing we have to a daily, hour-by-hour counterweight to Fox News. Vice, Fusion, and HuffPost Live are not going to become the Anti-Fox; they lack the motivation of a direct competitor. You need to be on the same stage—literally the same “platform”—of big, bold, mass-market commercial TV to duke it out with Fox News.
Take the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Media Matters surveyed the major news networks (almost all owned by companies that lobbied for the TPP) from August 1, 2013, to May 10, 2015, and found that on cable, only MSNBC mentioned the TPP with any frequency: 124 times, compared with Fox’s 12 and the Time Warner–owned CNN’s mere two. Of those 124 mentions, the overwhelming majority (103) came from the now-canceled Ed Show.
“People are concerned about what the brand is becoming,” one of the MSNBC insiders tells me. “Is there space to be against the war, not simply skeptical of it in a he-said/she-said way?”
Although MSNBC never was or could be as dogged a Fox-fighter as, say, Jon Stewart, it’s basically what progressives have on daily cable. Money, ratings, and popularity are what the media’s made of. But MSNBC, at its best, is also attempting something deeper: trying to dig us out from under what Stewart calls “Bullshit Mountain.” MSNBC has the shovels; it needs to hold on to its will.
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that in February, new MSNBC chairman Andy Lack cancelled the Joy Reid and Ronan Farrow shows. Rather, MSNBC president Phil Griffin cancelled those shows. Lack didn’t take over MSNBC until April.