It was hardly a surprise Thursday when ratings-challenged MSNBC announced the cancellation of the poor-performing afternoon programs hosted by Ronan Farrow and Joy Reid after less than a year, with veteran news anchor Thomas Roberts stepping in to preside over the two-hour block from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m.
Until a permanent replacement is named for Roberts’ 5:30 a.m. program Way Too Early, the 6 a.m. Morning Joe hosts Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski will temporarily take up the slack by starting a half-hour earlier.
But according to knowledgeable sources at the Comcast-owned cable network, Thursday’s moves were only the opening salvo in a wider programming shakeup.
In the relatively near term, two well-placed sources predicted to The Daily Beast, Chris Hayes will be relieved of his weak-performing 8 p.m. show All In, to be replaced by the current 9 p.m. host of The Rachel Maddow Show, while a talent search is underway to fill the prime-time slot to be vacated by Maddow.
An MSNBC spokesperson—who tried put a happy face on the demotions with talk of prime-time specials and “multiplatform” national reporting for the still-employed Farrow and Reid—declined to comment on the Hayes-Maddow scenario.
In the longer term, these sources said, the Rev. Al Sharpton—a larger-than-life personality who attracts a 35 percent African-American audience but continues, after 3½ years of nightly practice, to wrestle with his Teleprompter—could eventually be moved from his weeknight 6 p.m. slot to a weekend time period, as MNSBC President Phil Griffin attempts to reverse significant viewership slides by accentuating straight news over left-leaning opinion.
“Everybody in the food chain from top to bottom understands that the Olbermann era is over,” said an MSNBC source, referring to the glory days during George W. Bush’s administration when incendiary liberal Keith Olbermann regularly attracted a million viewers—many of them seeking refuge from White House and Republican talking points.
The MSNBC source said, “Going left was a brilliant strategy while it lasted and made hundreds of millions of dollars for Comcast, but now it doesn’t work anymore...The goal is to move away from left-wing TV.”
Olbermann, who these days hosts a sports program on ESPN, made his bones by blistering Bush and feuding with Fox News star Bill O’Reilly—the No. 1 rated cable news personality--and acrimoniously departed from MSNBC in February 2011 for former Vice President Al Gore’s Current TV, from which he was fired a year later.
Griffin—who has been forced to deal with a number of awkward personnel issues during his 7-year leadership of the cable outlet, notably the firings of Martin Bashir and Alec Baldwin for ugly verbal spewings—had high hopes for Farrow and Reid last year when he inserted their shows into the daytime lineup.
“I’m confident the changes and additions to our lineup will strengthen the flow of our programming,” Griffin wrote in a staff memo heralding their arrival last year.
In an interview with The Daily Beast, he was clearly smitten with Farrow, the son of Mia Farrow and Woody Allen (or Frank Sinatra, depending), then a precocious 26-year-old who was largely untested on camera.
“Within 20 minutes, it was ‘Holy Cow!’ I knew,” Griffin said, describing their first meeting. “I’d wondered, is this guy for real? Is he a freak? And he walked in and we had the greatest conversation about where media is going—and that is critical. We’ve got to be at the forefront of it, and if we’re not, we’re going to lose.”
Discussing his choice of Reid, then 44, he said: “Joy is a really thoughtful journalist and analyst, and she’s found real success on this network. She’s formidable on-air and very smart. She fits our sensibility and our audience really connects with her. She’s a natural.”
Alas, their programs tanked in both overall ratings and the all-important 25-to-54 viewer age demographic, on which advertising rates are set.
In the Nielsen period ending Tuesday, Farrow’s ratings reflected a 70-percent loss in the key demographic over the same period a year ago when Andrea Mitchell anchored the 1 p.m. time slot.
Reid did slightly better, losing 67 percent of the 25-to-54 viewership that had watched Tamron Hall.
Hayes, a writer on the Nation magazine who had frequently substituted for Maddow, was never going to mount a serious challenge to O’Reilly, yet he managed to fall short of even modest expectations, regularly coming in dead last against CNN’s Anderson Cooper and HLN’s Nancy Grace.
A year ago, however, Griffin stoutly defended Hayes. “I’m committed to Chris Hayes at 8 o’clock,” he told The Daily Beast. “The line is straight up, and I couldn’t be happier with where we are. I’m glad, because I put him there.”
Now, not so much.
Still, for all its ratings troubles, MSNBC remains a reliable money-maker for Comcast, since much of its revenue is generated not by viewership but by cable subscription fees.
The troubles at MSNBC are a minor irritant within the NBC Universal News Group compared with the shocking flameout of NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams over his public embellishments concerning his journalistic adventures. Williams’s interim replacement, Lester Holt, so far is holding his own.
That gives Griffin breathing room while he tries to remake the cable outlet, which has been falling backward even as it trumpets the ironic slogan, “Lean Forward.”
“Phil,” said an insider, “is in no particular hurry.”