As he returns to run the NBC News Group, Andy Lack faces one of the same puzzles he tried to solve a decade and a half ago: how to make MSNBC work.
While he was gone, MSNBC changed from traditional news to a political network with a liberal lens. Now that it is mired in a ratings slump, Lack's mandate as chairman will be figuring out if MSNBC needs a complete overhaul or a sharpening of its mission.
The current picture is seriously ugly. Through early March, Chris Hayes' viewership at 8 p.m. on weekdays was down 23 percent from last year, Rachel Maddow was off 24 percent and Lawrence O'Donnell down 26 percent. Among the 25-to-54-year-old demographic that is the basis for advertising sales, the prime-time lineup lost nearly half its audience. Daytime isn't much better.
Fatigue is natural for fans of any presidential administration in its sixth year, and liberals are traditionally less loyal to political talk media than conservatives.
"Like political groups that raise money, they do better when they have something to rail against," said Mark Feldstein, veteran television journalist and professor at the University of Maryland.
Phil Griffin, MSNBC president, has lately sought to broaden MSNBC's outlook by taking on a greater variety of stories, even hiring a food correspondent, and there's been some uptick in the ratings the past few weeks. He changed the daytime lineup, ditching opinionated programs hosted by Ronan Farrow and Joy-Ann Reid and establishing a news-focused bloc with Jose Diaz-Balart, Andrea Mitchell and Thomas Roberts.
Griffin has run MSNBC since 2006. Normally, executives at networks with his ratings are looking for another job, especially with a new boss coming in. But he and Lack have a long relationship, and Griffin has credited Lack with kick-starting his career by assigning him to supervise NBC News coverage of the O.J. Simpson case.
The shift in focus during the day has led some fans to fear MSNBC may abandon its liberal focus altogether.
That's very unlikely. Despite the ratings, analyst SNL Kagan predicts MSNBC will earn $509 million in revenue this year. While that's below Fox News Channel ($2.18 billion) and CNN ($1.16 billion), that would still be slightly up from $501 million in 2014, Kagan said.
The financial health is largely due to long-term deals with cable and satellite operators to carry MSNBC, made when the network sold itself as a counterbalance to Fox News, said Derek Baine, Kagan analyst. Bad ratings depress advertising prices, and while they would hurt MSNBC's future if they persist, the advertising is not as important as the carriage deals.
Considering Lack spent much of his first go-round at NBC News struggling to find an identity for MSNBC, the idea of searching for a new one is no doubt unappealing.
Shifting to straight news would be even harder because MSNBC is no longer seen as a primary news source. Its viewership doesn't go up much during big news events, certainly not like CNN and Fox. While conservatives like getting news from Fox, liberals don't feel the same way about MSNBC. A Quinnipiac University poll of 1,286 registered voters a month ago found 29 percent of people said Fox was their most trusted news source, compared to 7 percent for MSNBC. Even among Democrats, more than twice as many people said they trusted CNN more for news than MSNBC.
To many fans, MSNBC's weakness isn't that it's liberal. It's that the network is boring.
"The solution is not that 'we need more news' or that 'we need to alter the political viewpoint,' but what does the content of the shows look like," said Keith Olbermann, former MSNBC prime-time host. "Do not be afraid to make good television. And in Rachel, Phil Griffin, and Andy Lack, they've got three people in place who've already done that there."
Olbermann single-handedly lurched MSNBC to the left during President George W. Bush's second term when his angry commentary attracted a loyal audience. He had the passion, Maddow the quietly analytical mind and together they formed a potent one-two punch.
After Olbermann left, MSNBC set about modeling its lineup after Maddow, its Rhodes scholar and highest-rated personality.
Liberal in outlook, MSNBC's programming approach is often conservative. Watching MSNBC can feel like a hidden camera picking up a discussion in the faculty lounge. Fox viewers often feel like they've stumbled upon a street brawl.
Setting politics aside, which is more fun to watch?
Many liberals feel MSNBC reflexively defends President Barack Obama when it could be challenging him, said Jeff Cohen, a former MSNBC producer and now an Ithaca College professor. The network needs more energy and independence, he said.
Olbermann said the network needs an infusion of new ideas and new blood. Lack's skill is in spotting and managing talent, often from unexpected places, "and I am the largest example of that," he said.
Feldstein said it would be unwise for MSNBC to throw away an identity built up over a decade, certainly not with a presidential election year looming.
"I think Lack will tinker with MSNBC," he said. "He'll bring in new hosts, he'll try to punch it up. He'll add a bit more charisma and maybe a little bit more substance, wait for 2016 to bring the numbers up and declare victory."
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