Is Lawrence O’Donnell Facing the Chop at MSNBC?
MSNBC is doing well in the ratings, but rumors abound that it is about to ax prime-time host Lawrence O’Donnell.
First James Comey—now Lawrence O’Donnell?
To several highly placed sources at MSNBC, it’s looking increasingly like the Comcast-owned cable outlet’s 10 p.m. host could meet the same fate as President Donald Trump’s fired FBI director.
A Sunday Huffpost story suggesting that O’Donnell’s show is on the chopping block has fueled internal speculation about O’Donnell’s future, along with other rumored shakeups at MSNBC, including fears of a change in status for its longtime president, Phil Griffin, who reports to Andy Lack, chairman of NBC News and MSNBC.
A network executive told The Daily Beast that the Huffpost story is wrong and said O’Donnell and MSNBC management are negotiating “with an eye towards renewal and a new deal.”
The same exec said on Tuesday that Griffin’s job is safe and that he’ll remain as MSNBC’s president “for years to come.”
Griffin loyalist Rachel Maddow, who happens to be the top-rated personality in cable news, had privately expressed concern about her boss’s future and declared to colleagues in recent weeks that if Griffin leaves, she will follow him out the door.
The 61-year-old Griffin, who has been running the cable outlet for the past decade and officially was named president in July 2008, is the executive who took a big risk on Maddow in August of that year, giving the little-known radio personality and left-leaning cable commentator her own prime-time television show.
Griffin, an NBC News lifer who had been the longtime executive producer of Hardball with Chris Matthews, green-lit Morning Joe in 2007 and is also responsible for putting All In With Chris Hayes on the air at 8 p.m., as well as scheduling The Last Word With Lawrence O’Donnell in 2010.
“If they tried to get rid of Phil,” said a longtime network insider, “I don’t think the place would catch fire, but anybody who has a show that airs on this network would not do their show, starting that night.”
That bullet, in any case, appears to have been dodged.
The O’Donnell affair, however, has become such a cause célèbre in the newsbiz that CNN media correspondent Brian Stelter asked in his nightly “Reliable Sources” newsletter: “Why is MSNBC treating Lawrence O’Donnell so shabbily?... Who let it get to this point? How did it get to this point, a messy public drama between a primetime host and his bosses?”
With less than three weeks left on his current four-year contract, which ends in early June, the 65-year-old anchor—who is MSNBC’s second highest-rated personality, right behind Maddow at 9 p.m.—had yet to hear as of Tuesday morning from Griffin or Lack on whether they want to keep his six-year-old program on the outlet’s prime-time schedule, according to a source familiar with the situation.
O’Donnell’s high-powered agent, Ari Emanuel, the co-chief executive of William Morris Endeavor, had likewise been unable to obtain clarity about MSNBC management’s intentions, according to the source.
Ironically, it was Lack, in his previous incarnation as NBC News president, who presided over the 1996 launch of MSNBC, then a joint venture with Microsoft, and recruited O’Donnell as an on-air analyst from the very beginning of the cable outlet.
O’Donnell was absent from Monday night’s Last Word; he was off in Boston to emcee a long-scheduled awards ceremony in which he interviewed former secretary of state John Kerry before a large crowd. He was expected to return to the airwaves Tuesday night.
Asked about O’Donnell’s status before the start of NBC Universal’s upfront presentation Monday at Radio City Music Hall, Lack—a former CBS News producer and NBC News president who rejoined the Peacock Network two years ago, amid the Brian Williams scandal, after running Sony Music Entertainment, Bloomberg Television, and the government-funded Broadcast Board of Governors—blurted “Goodbye!” and made a beeline for his seat.
Griffin, meanwhile, answered vaguely, “There are discussions going on,” before declining to comment further.
Whatever discussions are going on, one MSNBC wag quipped, must concern how to publicly explain why a popular anchor would be facing the prospect of termination.
Perhaps significantly, there was no mention of O’Donnell in an NBC News video presentation shown at the network upfront that featured several MSNBC personalities, including Maddow, Joe Scarborough, Andrea Mitchell, and Brian Williams.
Citing a policy of not commenting on confidential negotiations, a network spokesperson declined to shed light on the state of play.
The psychic turmoil, comes, ironically, at a moment when the liberal-leaning network has never been more successful—the beneficiary of exploding viewership since Trump’s election last November.
The latest Nielsens, released late Monday for the week of May 8, show MSNBC’s prime-time programming, including O’Donnell’s show, beating the long-dominant Fox News Channel, to say nothing of third-place CNN, in the all-important 25-54 age demographic on which advertising is sold.
It’s a resounding victory that MSNBC hasn’t equaled since the first week of 2009, when Barack Obama was about to be inaugurated as president.
In terms of total viewership, MSNBC’s weekday average, 2.4 million, was nearly double that of CNN’s 1.3 million, and came close to Fox News’s 2.6 million—a harbinger, perhaps, of a new media-world order.
MSNBC, in short, appears to have hit upon a winning formula, even if the 70-year-old Lack continues to tinker with it. When Lack arrived for his second act in April 2015, the new chairman’s first job was to stabilize a news division roiled by Nightly News anchor Brian Williams, a protégé and close friend who was suspended without pay after telling tall tales about his journalistic exploits in various public venues, including on the network’s marquee news program.
In due course, Lack also set about purging the conspicuously opinionated slant from MSNBC’s weekday schedule, canceling the The Cycle along with such Griffin recruits as Alex Wagner and the Rev. Al Sharpton in favor of down-the-middle news programming as Trump’s unlikely campaign started to gain traction. (Lack replaced Sharpton’s 6 p.m. show with a widely panned rebroadcast of With All Due Respect, a Bloomberg Television political program).
“Had we not made this turn to breaking news with seriousness of purpose, in these times and in this election, we would have been clobbered,” Lack told The Daily Beast in December 2015. “As reasonable as that [discarded liberal] programming was for when it was created, we’re in a long game now.”
Several MSNBC employees, who spoke on the condition of anonymity so as not to risk their jobs, told The Daily Beast that Lack appeared to be altering the cable outlet’s ideological coloration in the Age of Trump—or as the headline on a recent Huffpost article put it, “With Trump in the White House, MSNBC Is Resisting the Resistance.”
They cite his expensive poaching of former Fox News anchors Greta Van Susteren for MSNBC and Megyn Kelly for NBC News, as well as the recent additions to MSNBC’s roster of ex-Fox News commentator George F. Will, a Never Trump conservative, and right-leaning radio host Hugh Hewitt, who is reportedly getting his own show on Saturday mornings.
Nicolle Wallace, a former White House communication director for George W. Bush, recently launched her own 4 pm. MSNBC program, Deadline: White House.
“I think Andy Lack wants to remake the network,” the longtime network insider said. “I think he wants Hugh Hewitt and George Will to be the face of MSNBC. If you think the problem with American television is not enough George Will, OK!”
Lack has also focused on rehabilitating his pal Williams, initially naming him MSNBC’s breaking news anchor after a carefully orchestrated mea culpa on the Today show; Williams regularly parachutes into the cable outlet’s regular programming to preside over coverage of congressional hearings and other live events. And last September, Lack finally added The 11th Hour With Brian Williams to MSNBC’s schedule.
In the event of O’Donnell’s departure, Williams could well jump from 11 p.m. to 10 p.m., MSNBC insiders speculated.
“But why not leave Brian at 11 where he’s doing great?” said the network insider. “This is the one time not to mess with us. MSNBC is kicking ass and firing on all cylinders. Everything’s going good. Stop messing with it!”