Can MSNBC Re-Center Itself? Andy Lack on Breaking News, ‘Today,’ and Brian Williams

In an exclusive interview, the NBC News chief talks about MSNBC’s rebrand, Brian Williams’s rehabilitation, relations with the RNC, and Today.

Photo Illustration by The Daily Beast

When Andy Lack returned to 30 Rock in April after a more than 14-year absence, the former NBC News president confronted a hot mess.

The network news division was coping—and not very well—with the brand-damaging Brian Williams scandal.

The Today show, the crown jewel and revenue-driver of NBC News, was losing viewers and advertising fees to ABC’s Good Morning America.

And MSNBC, the cable news channel that Lack had launched with Microsoft back in 1996 in the midst of his largely successful eight-year reign, was tanking in the ratings after a series of failed programming experiments at being the progressive counterpoint to the top-rated Fox News Channel.

“It was kind of an out-of-body experience to walk back into an office I’d had been in for eight years but not in for about 15,” the 68-year-old Lack told The Daily Beast. “My family wasn’t thrilled about me doing this. The stress levels get a little wacky.”

But in a wide-ranging interview about his eight months as chairman and top dog of NBC News and MSNBC, with thus far encouraging results for both the broadcast and cable news operations of the Comcast-owned outlets, Lack insisted he was never daunted.

“I thought it was a little exaggerated—a little bit of a pile-on effect,” he said concerning the proliferation of hair-raising stories in the trade press about chaos and clumsiness occurring under the management of Deborah Turness, the British-import president of NBC News, and Phil Griffin, a veteran producer and longtime president of MSNBC.

“It was kind of NBC’s turn in the barrel,” Lack added. “I’ve been in the barrel before. No question, NBC was in the crosshairs. But that didn’t give me pause.”

On other subjects:

* Lack explained why he has been toiling to re-brand MSNBC as a reliable provider of breaking news in contrast to its previous incarnation, personified by former anchor Keith Olbermann and other personalities such as Ronan Farrow, Joy Reid, and the Rev. Al Sharpton, as an outlet dominated by left-leaning hosts and pitched to like-minded viewers.

“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,” he said. “As reasonable as that [discarded liberal] programming was for when it was created, we’re in a long game now… This is maybe the most interesting election of my lifetime… The world has never been more dangerous in my lifetime.”

* He expressed “cautious optimism” that Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus will ultimately allow NBC News and Telemundo to host a Feb. 26 presidential debate in Houston—an arrangement that Priebus suspended after widespread outrage over the way NBC News’s corporate sibling, CNBC, handled the Oct. 28 debate.

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“I think it’s going to happen. We’ve had a couple of conversations,” Lack said. The CNBC debate “had nothing to do with anybody at NBC News,” he added, “and we felt badly about the situation. CNBC is not part of NBC News… Shit happens.”

* Lack defended MSNBC’s 8 p.m. Emmy-winning, albeit ratings-challenged, program, All In with Chris Hayes, whose host, according to an insider, has been repeatedly made aware of management dissatisfaction with the program’s ratings performance in an admittedly murderous time slot against Bill O’Reilly on the Fox News Channel and Anderson Cooper on CNN.

“I don’t feel pressure,” Lack insisted about what seems a weak link in MSNBC’s prime-time schedule, whose tentpoles are Chris Matthews at 7 p.m and Rachel Maddow at 9 p.m. “Chris [Hayes] is a good guy and he’s doing a good show.”

* He said he’s pleased by how Brian Williams has performed as MSNBC’s breaking news anchor since Williams returned to television in September with the visit to the United States of Pope Francis.

But Lack pointedly denied that the disgraced Nightly News anchor is being actively considered for a show of his own.

“We’re just not looking at it,” Lack said. “There always could be, would be, because he’s Brian, but that’s not where the focus is. The focus, particularly for this news cycle, which feels so intense when you go from Paris to San Bernardino before you can blink,” is for Williams to continue stepping into MSNBC’s regular programming to preside over breaking news.

Lack, whose network television career began at CBS News, where he was a producer for 60 Minutes and the documentary unit among other jobs, had left the Peacock Network to run Sony Music Entertainment and then the Bloomberg Media Group, followed by a two-month public service stint as CEO of the taxpayer-funded Broadcasting Board of Governors, before being lured back by NBC Universal chairman Steve Burke.

These days Lack has bragging rights over a raft of positive developments. If his sequel turns out to be as well-received as his original tenure at NBC, he could end up as the Godfather II of news executives.

The Today show—previously demoralized by the lingering fallout and negative publicity from the 2012 Ann Curry debacle, its chronic also-ran status and management missteps such as the public firing of a just-hired top executive—is now giving GMA a run for its money.

Today has won the advertising-desirable age 25-54 news demographic for the past 15 weeks and even occasionally beat its arch-rival in total viewers.

Lester Holt—who was named permanent anchor of NBC Nightly News in June, four months into subbing for Williams during the latter’s six-month disciplinary suspension—has held onto first place in both total viewers and the demo.

And Meet the Press, the venerable Washington Sunday panel show hosted by Chuck Todd, won the November ratings sweeps against its network competitors.

At MSNBC, Lack’s strategy to emphasize live breaking news over ideological chin-wagging for the daytime lineup—installing a seamless straight-news block to replace shows hosted by Farrow, Reid, Alex Wagner, and Ed Schultz, along with dumping the panel show The Cycle and demoting Sharpton from weeknights to an hour on Sunday morning—has paid off in increased viewership.

As for rumors that Wagner—whose wedding to former White House chef Sam Kass was attended by the Obama family—is being considered for a weekend program, “I gotta tell you, that’s in Phil’s court,” Lack said, referring to Griffin, who reports to him. “I don’t know a thing about what’s going on.”

MSNBC’s fourth-quarter daytime ratings reflect a 48 percent gain in total viewers and a 53 percent spike in the demo over the beginning of the year, while Morning Joe, the politically influential 6 a.m.-9 a.m. program, experienced a similar increase—stoked largely, no doubt, by horrific news events such as the terrorist attacks in Paris and San Bernardino and the ongoing presidential campaign melodrama starring Donald Trump.

Lack said he’s been trying to figure out ways to expand the Morning Joe franchise, especially to increase its relevance on the West Coast, where it airs at 3 a.m., but so far he hasn’t succeeded.

“Nothing,” he answered, when asked what’s happening with the rumored expansion. “It’s on my to-do list.”

Lack defends his cable outlet’s Trump obsession despite complaints from some quarters that over-the-top, often uncritical coverage of the Republican frontrunner—not only by MSNBC but by CNN and others—is inflating Trump’s high poll numbers.

“I think it’s a helluva story—and I like big stories,” Lack said, rejecting the notion that his and other news outlets are simply providing the reality TV mogul-turned-politician a free forum to reach and attract supporters.

“Donald Trump is leading our news coverage, and everybody else’s, because Donald Trump has cut a path through the Republican Party that is profound right now…The coverage we’re giving to Trump is arguably 24-7 because he’s got 40 percent in the polls.”

For Lack, it was apparently a no-brainer in this strange presidential campaign cycle to program MSNBC’s 6 p.m. time slot, previously occupied by Sharpton, with a rebroadcast of Bloomberg TV’s marquee political show, With All Due Respect, hosted by MSNBC contributors Mark Halperin and John Heilemann.

“Why not?” Lack parried when asked why he would give over an hour of his schedule at 6 p.m. to a program that has already aired on a competing outlet. (With All Due Respect runs at 5 p.m. on Bloomberg, which admittedly has a fraction of MSNBC’s audience.)

Although he plans to start the rebroadcast in January, Lack said details are still are to be decided—such whether the show, produced at Bloomberg’s headquarters and fed to 30 Rock, will be tweaked for MSNBC.

“We’re actually exploring that now in conversations,” Lack said, “but that wasn’t the stuff we needed to nail down as we came to an understanding.”

He said he isn’t worried by a recent announcement that Halperin and Heilemann recently committed to hosting an additional weekly political program for Showtime.

“Those guys are workaholics,” he said.