Michael Wolff on MSNBC: More Embarrassment Possible in "Straight News" Shift, Brian Williams' Return

Brian Williams MSNBC Illo - H 2015
Illustration by: R. Kikuo Johnson

Brian Williams MSNBC Illo - H 2015

The disgraced anchor's arrival leads new NBC News chief Andy Lack's strategic move away from liberal chatter to a real news operation. One problem: That doesn't work on cable.

This story first appeared in the Oct. 9 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

MSNBC, at the behest of its owner Comcast and under the direction of NBC News chief Andy Lack, has begun an overhaul of its character and philosophy. It will no longer be an overt and garrulous left-leaning opinion monger to Fox News' right-leaning version. Now, slapped along the head and brought to heel, it will be a straight (or straighter) news channel, helped by NBC's resources and respectability — more like CNN in the cable firmament than Fox News.

The immediate problem with this is that, over the last generation, NBC News has largely dismantled its newsgathering operation, in contrast to CNN, which has expanded its capabilities. But the other problem is that CNN itself has hardly succeeded as a "straight" news channel and is its own version of, well, cable news. Jeff Bewkes, CEO of CNN parent Time Warner, often tells colleagues in frustration that he wishes CNN could just do straight news. That's the same plaintive wish NBCUniversal CEO Steve Burke and his Comcast boss Brian Roberts have about MSNBC. In fact, Rupert Murdoch, whose news network pretty much invented non-straight news, often says he wishes Fox News would do it straighter, too.

That's the rub. Owners want straightness and respectability, or they want not to be embarrassed, while operators — Roger Ailes at Fox, Jeff Zucker at CNN, Phil Griffin at MSNBC — understand that straight news in cable is pure wishfulness. The baroque, the operatic, the melodramatic and the self-righteous are the norm because … that's cable, however embarrassing that might be when owners get complaints from friends and family. (Murdoch's children, two of them now the highest-ranking executives at 21st Century Fox, constantly lecture him about how embarrassing they find Fox News.)

Such embarrassment can be (or needs to be) tolerated, of course, if it makes lots of money. But embarrassment is all the greater without great profits, making MSNBC among the most embarrassing things on television. Still, however much its profits pale in comparison to Fox News and CNN, MSNBC is profitable — far more so than NBC News itself. (The low cost of cable programming versus higher cost of straight newsgathering produces profit margins traditionally between 30 percent and 50 percent.) Therefore, the difficult equation at MSNBC is how much lower would Comcast let MSNBC's profits go in order to be less embarrassed by the network. Answer: not much.

MSNBC is not NBC's only news embarrassment. There is the Brian Williams mess and the Today show's public infighting and historic fall from first place. This spring, Lack, a former NBC News chief, was brought back to provide a global solution to the company's many news woes. The problem at NBC has been one of disparate operations and sensibilities. It has a lot of news brands — Today, Nightly News, Meet the Press, Dateline, CNBC, MSNBC — each troubled in its own way. Comcast's lack of inter­est in news was reflected in a strategy that had all brands reporting to a coordinating executive (rather than a true news director), Pat Fili-Krushel, who was pushed aside by Lack and then said in early September she is leaving. (MSNBC head Griffin must be regarded as one of the winners in the overall NBC debacle for, however unaccountably, lasting so long.)

Lack, 67, is an old-school, hands-on news manager whose job is to centralize NBC's operations and brand. Comcast, reversing its management approach, is looking to Lack — who in his past life helped promote Matt Lauer at Today and Williams at Nightly and launched MSNBC and who is getting a rare redo chance in life — to restore credibility, if not luster. But now he must make do with management finesse rather than resources. "The news is the star," Lack told The New York Times. "We are building a network that has as its core value delivering breaking news better than anyone else. It is not about the anchor who happens to be delivering the news."

In fact, very obviously, none of that is true. But it is the working conceit and hoped-for illusion.

As part of this new strategy, much of MSNBC's daytime flotsam and jetsam (Ed Schultz, Toure Neblett, Ronan Farrow) has been swept away, replaced in part by Williams as a one-man band (Meet the Press' Chuck Todd also is visiting from the NBC network to do a straight daily news commentary show).

Whatever brand problems Williams has, the thinking is that they are less than MSNBC's brand problems. Indeed, there may be nobody in TV better in a breaking-news environment than Williams, nobody better at handling a plane crash or hurricane or pope visit (during Williams' first week in the chair covering Pope Francis' visit to the U.S., MSNBC ratings were the highest they have been since the Supreme Court's gay marriage decision). He can vamp and spin a story forever (a tendency that, arguably, got him into trouble).

In effect, the strategy is to put Williams in front of the camera and hope like hell something terrible happens soon and often. This in a way is the essence of cable news management, to be ready to find opportunities in what you can't control (Don Imus' scandal-caused demise made way for the happenstance hit Morning Joe), with the success of cable news directors and personalities most often determined by the arc of what happens on their watch.

Hence, "straight" is not really so much a position or a philosophic view but a baseline. You begin as straight, and then an airplane disappears, and weeks and weeks later you are still reporting the story and have turned yourself into weird, obsessional reality television. Or you begin as straight, or straighter, and then Keith Olbermann comes along and remakes the network with his obsessions — until he implodes. Or Bill Clinton is caught up in scandal, and Fox builds the story into a narrative that changes American politics and keeps Fox dominant for a generation.

At any rate, news, even MSNBC's new "straight" news, is the opposite of straight — rather, it heads, with any luck, down the deepest, most compulsive rabbit hole.

Michael Wolff writes frequently about the media business. His latest book is Television Is the New Television.