Up and Down
Why Al Sharpton Is Happy With His MSNBC Demotion
The firebrand Reverend loses his weeknight perch and heads to the weekends, but insists the political and pop-culture stars will still come flocking.
If you’re a nationally known personality with your very own weeknight television show, you probably would be pretty bummed if the network suits took away your high-profile 6 p.m. time slot and shunted you off to a single hour on early Sunday morning.
And you would probably have a difficult time putting a happy face on the situation.
But, then again, you’re not the Rev. Al Sharpton.
“I was very comfortable with the fact that I was going to do a Sunday show,” Sharpton insisted to The Daily Beast late Thursday night, putting a positive spin on MSNBC’s announcement that as of next Friday, his four-year-old program, Politics Nation, will be cancelled, to be replaced by an as-yet undefined news hour.
The Baptist preacher and civil rights activist—who also heads the African-American-oriented advocacy group, the National Action Network—will be relegated to 8 a.m. Sundays starting October 4.
“We just wanted to make sure that it was the right time, and we wanted to make sure it was going to be an A-1 show,” Sharpton continued. “I’m talking about doing it in a way that is going to surprise everybody—getting A-list names both in Washington and entertainment, and all of that.”
Sharpton’s demotion—the latest tweak in NBC News Chairman Andy Lack’s ongoing exertions to make the Comcast-owned cable news outlet more news-driven and competitive with CNN and top-rated Fox as the presidential campaign heats up—will extract an hour of airtime from the host of Up With Steve Kornacki, a political-cultural panel show which will now air at 9 a.m. Sunday, while retaining its 8-10 a.m. Saturday slot.
“Nobody thought we could do a weekday show, and now we’re going to do a Sunday show, and it will be very different, and we’ll do things that the Sunday shows that come on after me are gonna have to deal with—stuff they couldn’t get,” Sharpton said. “Don’t forget, I have one of the best Rolodexes out there from Washington circles and entertainment circles, and I’m going to use it.”
Sharpton continued: “The reason 8 a.m. works for me is that it’s early enough for all the church crowd to watch before they go to church.”
Sharpton said his goal is to compete with NBC’s Meet the Press, CNN’s State of the Union, Fox News Sunday and other such programs to make and break news—with guests as diverse as Obama administration Cabinet officials and hip-hop mogul Jay-Z—although that newsy ambition might be hampered by his plan to tape the show on Fridays rather than do it live on Sundays.
Sharpton, 60, said anchoring a nightly program along with a three-hour radio show every day—to say nothing of traveling the country to put his stamp on various political and social controversies in troubled communities on behalf of his advocacy group—had been taxing of late.
“I always put myself under more pressure than anybody because at the end of the day, I always want to be successful, so that I’ve got a platform for the causes I represent,” Sharpton said, noting that MSNBC will continue to pay him the same reportedly seven-figure salary for one-fifth of his previous work.
“I have a contract,” he said, adding that it runs “for a good while,” but declining to specify how much longer.
He added: “I’m as happy as I could be.”
As he departed the rooftop Press Lounge on Manhattan’s West Side, where a fourth anniversary Politics Nation party—more likely, a wake—was being thrown by MSNBC President Phil Griffin, Sharpton said that years ago, he had initially approached Griffin with an idea for a Sunday morning show, and Griffin—on whom Sharpton bestowed the National Action Network’s “Keeper of the Dream” award in 2011--countered with an offer for airtime five nights a week.
“I had gone to Phil to pitch a weekly show, like when Jesse [Jackson] had one on CNN or Julian Bond had on America’s Black Forum, and Phil said, ‘Let’s do it every day,’” Sharpton recounted.
Sharpton rejected the much-circulated scenario that he was actually given his own show as a reward for his conspicuous public support for Comcast’s various merger and acquisition ambitions, notably the purchase of NBC Universal, the parent company of MSNBC, from General Electric.
And now that Sharpton has served his corporate purpose, so this theory goes, Comcast can safely reduce his profile without cutting him loose and provoking protests.
“That scenario would be sane if it wasn’t what I wanted all along,” Sharpton argued. “We went in with a pitch, and we are now getting done basically we what originally wanted, and that makes the conspiracy theory unpalatable.”
This latest shift—which this writer predicted back in February—is by no means the last shakeup to be executed by Lack and Griffin.
Since the beginning of the year, and especially after former NBC News President Lack’s return to the network in April after more than a decade’s absence, they have been making sweeping changes with the ratings-challenged channel’s afternoon lineup, cancelling five poor-performing opinion-heavy shows hosted by Ronan Farrow and Joy Reid along with the The Cycle, Now With Alex Wagner and The Ed Show with Ed Shultz, and replacing those hours with more news-driven programming.
Griffin had been talking about the cancellation of Politics Nation with Sharpton, and the proposed shift to Sunday morning, “for several weeks,” said the civil rights impresario, who added that he never discussed it with Lack.
Still unclear is the future of All In With Chris Hayes, MSNBC’s anemically-performing 8 p.m. program which has long been ripe for a change.
The role of former Nightly News anchor Brian Williams, who this month concluded his six-month suspension (a punishment for publicly exaggerating his various adventures in journalism), is also up in the air.
Williams is expected in mid-September to rejoin MSNBC, where he’d hosted his own show more than a decade ago, as a breaking-news anchor, but he won’t immediately get his own regular perch.
In any case, Williams is not expected to anchor the 6 p.m. time slot, which network sources said will have a different as-yet unnamed host, riding herd on news and panel discussions.