MSNBC President Phil Griffin on Whom He'd Poach From Fox News and Why Obama Avoids the Network (Q&A)

Phil Griffin Summer TCA - P 2011
Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images

BEVERLY HILLS, CA - AUGUST 02: President of MSNBC Phil Griffin speaks during the 'MSNBC' panel during the NBC Universal portion of the 2011 Summer TCA Tour held at the Beverly Hilton Hotel on August 2, 2011 in Beverly Hills, California. 

"We are not going to do an easy interview, and President Obama knows it," he says.

This story first appeared in the Oct. 12 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

Like many political junkies, Phil Griffin starts his day with Morning Joe, which he watches while running three miles on the treadmill. Fit and trim at 55, the network president swore off meat a year ago but still eats fish -- "you need protein," he reasons. Griffin has been at MSNBC since its launch in 1996, long before the network carved out its current identity as the progressive destination for politicos -- when CNN was atop the cable news ratings heap and Fox News was but a maligned upstart on the landscape.

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Griffin, a married father of two teenagers -- daughter Riley, 16, and son Jackson, 15 -- is a producer's executive, having come up through the ranks of NBC News, where he worked with Tom Brokaw on Nightly News and did multiple stints at the Today show. He was given executive oversight of MSNBC in 2006 and named president of the network in 2008. By 2009, MSNBC's primetime lineup of Keith Olbermann and Rachel Maddow had overtaken CNN. (Griffin will not talk about Olbermann, though in the past he has acknowledged his erstwhile star's contributions to building the network's identity. The only time the two men have exchanged words since Olbermann left MSNBC in January 2011 was last year, when they ran into each other at a Yankees game.)

For the week ending Sept. 21 (during which Mitt Romney's infamous "47 percent" video was leaked), Maddow beat Fox News' Sean Hannity in the all-important 25-to-54 demographic upon which most news programming is sold to advertisers. Although she had picked off a day here and there, it was the first time she had bested Hannity's average for an entire week. (MSNBC actually has the largest audience in 18-to-34 among its cable news competition, though that audience is still small.)

Griffin is responsible for nearly the entire current MSNBC lineup -- save for Chris Matthews, though Griffin did spend a couple years as Matthews' producer. He has seeded the network with a new crop of contributors-turned-hosts including Chris Hayes, Melissa Harris-Perry, the cast of The Cycle (Steve Kornacki, S.E. Cupp, Krystal Ball and Toure) and Al Sharpton, who might not be the smoothest teleprompter practitioner but nonetheless has found his audience.

On Sept. 28, as The Hollywood Reporter's photographer shot Griffin in his immaculate third-floor office at NBC's Rockefeller Center headquarters, Rachel Maddow Show's executive producer Bill Wolff wandered by. Asked for a thumbnail of his boss, he said: "He has tremendous instincts. He loves television, he thinks about it all the time. It's not a hobby for him."

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From inside the office, Griffin bellowed, "Are you saying nice things about me, Bill?" Wolff ignored him and continued: "And here's the key -- he has perfected the very difficult balance between managing people and giving them enough room to excel."

The Hollywood Reporter: Are MSNBC's recent ratings gains more than a temporary bump from Romney's 47 percent gaffe?

Phil Griffin: The 47 percent tape helped in a big way. But we came out of the conventions really in a great position. We beat Fox, we beat CNN, we beat ABC and CBS at 10 p.m. during the [Democratic National Convention]. And I think Rachel was the biggest winner; her ratings just soared. It's obviously our time, this period between the conventions and the election. It's bigger than any time in our history.

THR: Is it sustainable?

Griffin: I think we're going to come out of the election much closer to Fox. In 2008, prior to the conventions, we were a distant third to Fox and CNN. During the election buildup, between the conventions and the election, we didn't beat CNN until October. And then in 2009, we overtook CNN. So we went from distant third to second, and now we've been a strong second for a number of years. We're nipping on Fox's heels.

THR: Do you think a Romney presidency would help MSNBC the way the Obama presidency gave Fox News a target?

Griffin: I happen to think one of the things that gave us a boost was "mission accomplished" [when George W. Bush stood on an aircraft carrier on May 1, 2003, and declared the end of "major combat operations" in Iraq]. Some of our people in primetime had been very skeptical about the war and the buildup, and after "mission accomplished," a lot of people said, "Wow, they were right." So you never know what's going to take you to that next level. It's always easier to be in the opposition. Not to be obnoxious, but in Paradise Lost Satan is more interesting than God. The last time I said that, somebody said I should never say that again.

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THR: So you want to be Satan?

Griffin: (Laughs.) No. But it's true.

THR: How would you fix CNN?

Griffin: I think it's doable. I'll only say one thing because why would I want to help them? (Laughs.) It's a different world. You have to stand for something and embrace it and be passionate about that position. I'll leave it at that.

THR: Are you the left-wing version of Fox News?

Griffin: No. We don't put out talking points all day. The night of the vote on the Bush tax cuts, whether to preserve them or not, every show's coverage was different in primetime. It was fantastic. We did great that night. We hire smart people, and they think for themselves. The fact that President Obama has done Fox News, CNN, ABC, CBS and NBC -- what is the only major TV outlet that he has not done? He has not done us.

THR: Why not?

Griffin: It should be noted, every Republican, whether they're in trouble or not, does their first interview with Fox. They are invited, and they are treated well. With us, you come at your own risk. We are not going to lay down, do an easy interview, and President Obama knows it. We're not here to be the voice of the administration. There are a lot of things we agree on, but there are no deals. They don't tell us what to say, we don't ask them to come on and then we'll give them a free ride. That isn't how it works. And that gives us a certain amount of integrity, and I think that's what our audience respects about us.

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THR: But do you think Obama hasn't done an MSNBC interview because he thinks that everyone who watches MSNBC is going to vote for him anyway?

Griffin: I think they're smarter than that -- they know that's not the case.

THR: Has the Romney campaign ever complained about anything you've put on?

Griffin: Other than some factual things, which we definitely want to hear about and will clear up … no, I have not heard from them directly. I heard a lot more from the McCain campaign. In fact, [McCain-Palin senior adviser] Steve Schmidt railed against me. Now look at him. He's a good friend of mine, and he works for me.

THR: Do you want more Republicans to come on MSNBC?

Griffin: Yes. Look, we like all ideas. I do think this channel is about depth. I love it when Rachel gets a big interview and it's smart, thoughtful and always polite. Morning Joe obviously gets a wide variety of guests. But people have to be prepared to go on our shows. Whether you're a Democrat or a Republican, you have to be prepared. But everyone is welcome.

THR: You tend to develop talent on the air instead of hiring them from another network or local news. How do you know when a contributor is ready to become a host?

Griffin: I've seen how we did it before. We put on a lot of people who had never been on MSNBC before. There is nothing worse than that debut, and you wonder if that person is going to succeed with your audience. I saw that when I was a worker bee here. We don't do that now, and I'm never going do that again. It's too painful; you will have an ulcer. When Rachel began her show in 2009, I already knew our audience loved her. When we put Lawrence O'Donnell on, he'd filled in at 8 p.m. for basically half a year the previous year. I knew he was going to be successful; it was just a matter to what degree. Ed Schultz had been successful at 6 p.m. before we moved him to [primetime]. Chris Hayes had filled in. Melissa Harris-Perry had filled in. There were no ulcers during that period. We don't do that now, and I'm never going do that again. CNN did that with Eliot Spitzer. It's too painful; you will have an ulcer.

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THR: There are people, including some at your own company, who have asserted that cable news is responsible for debasing the political dialogue in this country.

Griffin: Yeah, my little hairs go up when people criticize cable news with a broad brush. That criticism comes from people who don't actually watch us. They dismiss us when in fact we are doing real, thoughtful, informative segments, whether it's having a war correspondent talk for an hour about what's going on in Afghanistan, or the voter ID issue, which we've done across the board at MSNBC. Chris Hayes did two hours on Foxconn [the Chinese iPhone factory where harsh working conditions have led to riots]. It was said you can't do really thoughtful, smart pieces and get an audience and make it popular. I think we've done that.

THR: Have you watched Aaron Sorkin's The Newsroom?

Griffin: I will watch it, and I'm sure I'll love it because everybody says I'd love it. But I want to watch Breaking Bad, and I don't have time to. But with Newsroom, it's like this is what we do and I'll be judgmental, and I don't want to be that jerk who says, "Oh, it sucks."

THR: Is there an on-air personality on another network that you would like to have?

Griffin: Yes. I don't know if I should say this. [Fox News anchor] Shep Smith. I just like his way. I like everything about him.

THR: Former CNN president Jon Klein occasionally used to have lunch with Fox News chairman Roger Ailes. Have you ever had a meal with Roger?

Griffin: No. I would love to.