Cable-News Wars

Inside MSNBC’s Shakeup: Now Chris Hayes Will Take On Bill O’Reilly

It’s Chris Hayes versus Bill O’Reilly. Phil Griffin tells Lloyd Grove about the No. 2 cable outlet’s shuffle.

First came Pope Francis. Now comes Primetime Chris.

Starting April 1, Chris Hayes will succeed MSNBC anchor Ed Schultz as host of the second-place cable outlet’s all-important 8 p.m. time slot, opposite Fox News kingpin Bill O’Reilly. Schultz will be relegated to Saturdays and Sundays from 5 to 7 p.m.

“You saw the white smoke come up early this morning,” MSNBC president Phil Griffin told me Thursday afternoon, a few hours after his new primetime anchor—who since September 2011 has hosted the weekend morning program Up With Chris Hayes—was among the featured talent lunching with advertisers at NBC News’s upfront presentation. “I am a very happy man,” Griffin added.

The ascension of Chris Hayes is Griffin’s latest tweak at a cable network that, when Griffin began running it in 2006, was a third-place, middle-of-the-road 24/7 news channel featuring reality-show fare on the weekends. In the last six years, Griffin has transformed MSNBC into a strong No. 2, nipping at Fox News’s heels in some day parts, with opinion-driven programming featuring a leftward tilt and the slogan “Lean forward.”

“Sometimes the notion of being a progressive channel gets so much attention,” Griffin says, “but that’s not the magic of this channel. The special sauce of this channel is the people we’ve hired.”

The slightly built, bespectacled Hayes at 34 is the country’s youngest host of a cable-news program; brings liberal credentials and intellectual heft as a veteran of The Nation magazine, among other wonky publications; and is the author of the 2012 book Twilight of the Elites: America After Meritocracy. Aside from a prestigious fellowship at the New America Foundation, a left-leaning think tank, Hayes’s academic laurels include a B.A. from Brown University and a fellowship at Harvard. On his two-hour show, which has aired from 8 to 10 a.m. on Saturdays and Sundays, he has presided over exquisitely nuanced roundtable discussions among panels of like-minded, and occasionally adversarial, eggheads.

Hayes, in short, is the stylistic opposite of the man he’s succeeding, a native Virginian who commutes every week to his Manhattan studio from his home in Minnesota. The 59-year-old Schultz is a brawny, blustery populist and self-proclaimed champion of the working class who toiled as a sportscaster, and then as a talk-radio jock, after his professional football ambitions fizzled. The flame-haired Schultz, who joined MSNBC in 2009, hosted shows at 6 p.m. and then at 10 p.m. before getting the primetime 8 o’clock slot in October 2011. He drew respectable ratings, but consistently trailed O’Reilly, even as Rachel Maddow, MSNBC’s 9 p.m. host and the network’s top-rated talent, began to beat Fox News’s Sean Hannity in the key 25–54 demographic.

Schultz announced his departure on Wednesday’s Ed Show, spinning his demotion as a positive development. “I’ve gotta tell ya, sitting behind this desk five nights a week just doesn’t cut it for me. I want to get out with the people,” he explained.

On Thursday Griffin was at pains to deny widespread speculation that MSNBC management, concerned that Schultz’s audience was aging beyond the ideal, most lucrative demographic for advertisers, was eager to relieve him of his primetime berth as his contract came up for renewal.

“This began with Ed coming to me,” Griffin insisted. “And I will tell you that Ed has an incredible following in the network ... Ed and I were talking about his contract, and Ed is a very sharp guy. He said he wanted to be here long term ... He wanted to spend more time in Minnesota. I said, ‘Well, Ed, I am extending the weekend. I need someone for 5 to 7. It’s critical. It’s going to be as important as 8 to 10 [on weeknights].’ And he came back to me and said, ‘I want to do that long term.’ ”

Griffin declined to comment on whether the health concerns of Schultz’s wife, Wendy—who is being treated, apparently successfully, for ovarian cancer—played a role in Schultz’s thinking.

Griffin said he had lunch with Hayes a few weeks ago and pitched him on the idea of taking the 8 p.m. time slot only after he and Schultz agreed on the new schedule. “There were a couple of obvious choices. I went to Chris Hayes,” he said. “I knew he was going to do it, but there was always a reluctance. He has created a real franchise on weekend mornings. It works. There’s a high level of engagement from the audience. The length of viewing time by viewers is incredibly high. It’s funny. I’m getting many calls today, and I get as many, maybe more, calls about ‘what’s going on with Up’ as I do about ‘what’s going on at 8.’ He has a very hot following.”

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Griffin said he wants Hayes to bring “the spirit” of his morning program to 8 p.m., but acknowledged that a weeknight show must be faster paced and animated by the news of the day. He claimed not to know whether Hayes, who favors open-neck shirts on weekend television, will yield to the conventions of cable news and start wearing a tie, like every other evening MSNBC host, from Chris Matthews to Al Sharpton to Lawrence O’Donnell (though not Maddow). “I don’t tell anybody what to wear,” he said.

Griffin said he wants “a smart, thoughtful show—that’s what people are craving,” but he doesn’t expect Hayes to threaten O’Reilly, at least not for awhile. “O’Reilly is their No. 1 show, and he’s the king of cable. He’s a powerhouse. What we can do is just chip away, just chip away. And that’s what Rachel’s done at 9 ... Since September we’ve had more and more victories against Fox.” Ultimately “we want to take the opportunity to put the pedal to the metal,” Griffin said. “Fox set a standard, but I want to beat that standard.”

Griffin declined to comment on speculation that Washington Post columnist Ezra Klein, a frequent substitute host for Maddow, or MSNBC contributor Joy-Ann Reid, a popular guest throughout MSNBC’s day, will be taking over the 8 to 10 a.m. weekend slot. He indicated that he has made the decision, but that details must still be ironed out, and the new host will be announced within a week.