Ken Tucker: An Open Letter to MSNBC President Phil Griffin

Phil Griffin - H 2014
AP Images

Phil Griffin - H 2014

Cultural critic Ken Tucker offers MSNBC's president, Phil Griffin, some free, unsolicited advice on how to get his channel back on track

Dear Mr. Griffin,

You are in ratings trouble. From Morning Joe to Rachel Maddow, you’re losing chunks of audience. You recently told The New York Times' Bill Carter, “we’ve got to adjust; we’ve got to evolve.” May I suggest five ways to do so?

1. Look at a list of frequent guests on Fox News. Now book them all, on your shows, across all day-parts. But also look at a list of leftist thinkers, analysts and essayists. Now book them on those same shows, alongside those right-wing talking heads, and let the blood flow. By which I mean, get viewers’ blood boiling, stir things up, hear some spirited debate (not shouting), some extreme opinions uttered articulately from both sides. Fox has succeeded in convincing CNN and your network that “liberal” equals “left wing extremist,” cowing you into booking too many centrists. Centrists make for dull TV. Here’s your opportunity to reacquaint America with what real, patriotic-left opinions are.

2. Start a pop culture roundtable talk show. I thought that was what The Cycle would turn into, but, except for hiring Toure, you blew it there. You can afford to schedule a non-news show, because the intrinsic timeliness of pop culture frames many news stories these days. At a time when Gone Girl raises issues about gender roles, or ABC’s black-ish about race relations, there’s a lot to talk about, both on a fan-level and a more elevated, newsworthy level. Plus, it will be fun to hear smart cultural commentators champion, condemn and argue — just think of the Fox News jokes you can make during a Walking Dead discussion!

3. Think NPR. In at least three different ways:

• You don’t need a new business model as much as you need a new talent model, a new pool to draw from, a different way of thinking about on-air personalities. Look/listen to National Public Radio. You’re never gonna get another Terry Gross, but you can try to emulate her mix of high/low, political/entertainment bookings, with a host who’s not out to score her/his own laughs, but who rather relies on deep knowledge and research in a conversational manner.

• Want a way to program against CNN’s increasing reliance on personalities like Anthony Bourdain and Mike Rowe? Those guys are storytellers. NPR shows like This American Life are full of storytellers — that show made stars of storytellers. There are hundreds of young people doing long-form journalism and personal histories on shoestring budgets who’d love to become part of a show that would regularly showcase that kind of work.

• For God’s sake, would it kill you to program something light in the afternoon? In the midst of the networks’ game shows and syndicated talk shows, put something on your channel that is a smarter, swifter, snarkier version of NPR’s quiz show Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me!

4. Your Morning Joe Problem: The sitting-around-reading-newspapers-and-yelling-at-each-other thing is no longer working because people at home are doing enough yelling getting the kids out to the bus stop. Here’s the morning show for MSNBC: Steal CBS This Morning’s “Eye-Opener” two-minute summary of hard-news headlines and stick your own rubric on it. Then ignore all the recent social media festooning the network shows (“Tweet us your opinion!”), and set up an old-fashioned-yet-new morning “family” in the tradition of old Today and GMA line-ups: The avuncular/dad figure; the working-mom; the smart-aleck kid; the weatherperson who knows from humor and headlines (never underestimate the value of an Al Roker). Make their discussion of the morning’s news relatable, quick and lively. Don’t ask the audience to tweet their opinions to you; that’s just embarrassing.

5. Your biggest evening draw is, according to the Times piece, Chris Matthews (who is 68). This should tell you something: Don’t be afraid to put people over the age of 40 on the air. You chase the youth demo at your peril, and here’s the thing about the 25-54 demo that is your desired audience: They don’t care how old someone is, they just care about whether that person is saying something provocative, enlightening, fresh, and/or funny. Of course Fox beats you all the time — they don’t care if a guest is 21 or 81 as long as he or she makes an impact.

You need to make a different kind of impact, Mr. Griffin.

Good luck,

Ken Tucker