Wednesday, May 1, 2013

MSNBC morphs again, CNN not so much (yet)


PHIL GRIFFIN, the president of MSNBC and master of employee Circadian rhythms, has directed a juggling of the on-air staff, a series of bobs and weaves that promises to shake things up going forward in what’s been MSNBC’s most vulnerable area: the weekend. In that TV-lonely part of the week, MSNBC may be plotting a run at a new identity.

Rachel Maddow, who continues in her prime-time hosting roost at the network, used to make it a mantra on Friday evenings, right before her program, “The Rachel Maddow Show,” signed off: “Now, it’s time for you ... to go to jail.”

It was Maddow’s way of alerting MSNBC viewers that the network was about to go into its weekend block of rebroadcasts of “Lockup,” the long-running series of inside-prison-walls docs that once dominated MSNBC programming from early evening on Friday until sometime on Sunday, when MSNBC’s pickup of “Meet the Press” signaled the end of our weekend incarceration.

That’s been changing over the last year or so. MSNBC started it in September 2011 with the debut of “Up With Chris Hayes,” awarding a weekend morning news and political analysis program to Hayes, a frequent MSNBC commentator and pinch-hit host for MSNBC programs in the past.

That month, MSNBC also rebranded the weekend news block hosted by network news vet Alex Witt. Her show, “Weekends With Alex Witt,” helped make MSNBC a destination for viewers used to going elsewhere for the day’s news on weekends.

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The network followed in mid-February 2012 with “Melissa Harris-Perry,” a news analysis program hosted by its namesake, an author, Tulane University professor, columnist for The Nation, and the first African American woman to host a news show on a major network.

Then in June, MSNBC introduced “The Cycle,” a five-days-a-week midday program with four hosts sounding off and squaring off with guests on topics of the day. The hosts — writer and commentator TourĂ©, conservative columnist S. E. Cupp, Salon senior political writer Steve Kornacki, and businesswoman and former congressional candidate Krystal Ball — found their niche, interviewing newsmakers and journalists in freewheeling fashion.

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Fast forward to March of this year. Griffin exercised his control over the sleep habits of his on-air personalities, making some ... adjustments. Effective in early April, Chris Hayes, the father of a 16-month-old daughter, got his weekend mornings back — in exchange for his weekdays. Hayes moved to prime-time to take the helm of “All In With Chris Hayes,” a new Monday-Friday hourlong program that went up in the 8 p.m. slot once occupied by Ed Schultz, the pugnacious radio talk-show host and namesake of MSNBC’s “The Ed Show.”

Griffin and the MSNBC brain trust moved Kornacki to the old Hayes spot on Saturday and Sunday mornings. Voila! “Up With Steve Kornacki” debuted on April 13, keeping the expansive two-hour format intact.

But there’s more. MSNBC announced on April 25 that “The Ed Show” will be back on the air on May 11, with Schultz, the reliably combustible progressive, bringing his prime-time show’s intensity to the weekends. Also, Karen Finney, a longtime MSNBC contributor and Democratic strategist, will get her own weekend show (Saturdays and Sundays from 4 to 5 p.m.), setting the table for Schultz, who’ll roll from 5 to 6 p.m. before expanding to two hours (5 to 7 p.m.) sometime this summer.

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GOT ALL that? Give it time. In the short term, the changes mean two things: First, MSNBC is truly serious about relegating to the sidelines the “Lockup” docs (and their tabloid cousins in the “Caught on Camera” series, hosted by Contessa Brewer, who hasn’t been in the MSNBC lineup since 2011).

More than just about anything else in recent years, it’s been the network’s weekend morph into the Incarceration & Forensics Channel that compromised its ability to truly become the full-service news machine that the ubiquity of cable has entitled viewers to expect. With the full-on assault on weekend dayparts, MSNBC stands poised to really go head to head with its counterparts in the space.


Second, the changes in scheduling have accompanied a change in the way MSNBC will actually be programming the shows themselves. What the Chris Hayes “Up” model began, and what the Kornacki “Up” and the new fully-reconstituted “Ed Show” will continue, is a refreshing willingness to step out of the one-hour box. By virtue of its persistence as a news model, the one-hour news program has become its own kind of jail, a prison of a broadcast-era format in the digital age. The two-hour weekend blocks are a big pushback on the 60-minute diktat.

The move has led to more thoughtful, more nuanced exploration of a variety of topics, and during a time that’s generally considered the graveyard of the TV schedule. With its commitment to the two-hour panel-format program, MSNBC has made a bold bid to effectively rewrite the paradigm for news and analysis shows, expanding the grammar of the format by extending the clock.

And with the hiring of Finney for a program of her own, MSNBC has indicated a full-on commitment to the principles of diversity embodied in its “Lean Forward” catchphrase. Finney, who was the first African-American spokeswoman for the Democratic National Committee, follows Harris-Perry, Tamron Hall and Rev. Al Sharpton into the MSNBC ranks with a branded program.

When she starts on May 11, Finney will be the seventh non-white program host in the current MSNBC roster, joining four African Americans (Hall, TourĂ©, Sharpton and Harris-Perry) and two hosts of South Asian ancestry (Alex Wagner and Martin Bashir) in what’s certainly, across all dayparts, the most demographically diverse program-host lineup in television.

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CNN IS going through the throes of its own reinvention, spurred by the ascension of former NBC phenom Jeff Zucker. The early results have been ... mixed. The “most trusted name in news” hasn’t exactly covered itself in glory in recent weeks. First, and worst, was the grand cockup of CNN’s John King and some of his reporting in the Boston Marathon terrorist bombing. King said at one point that a “dark-skinned male” suspect had been apprehended in the case, a report that managed to be both premature and inaccurate at the same time. King’s bungle marred the first, really big breaking-news story of the Zucker-era CNN.

But the Cable News Network hasn’t given up on making changes. CNN mainstay Anderson Cooper is trying out a new format for his “AC360” show. In a TV version of A/B testing, Cooper hosts the “AC360” show this week at 8 p.m. in its regular Cooper-as-newsreader format. Then at 10 p.m., Cooper helms a panel-format version of the show, with special guests sitting in for what’s meant to be more informal and expansive dialogue ... not unlike what MSNBC set in motion on weekend programming months ago.

And in other ways, CNN shows signs of staking out some interesting territory. A new show, “Anthony Bourdain Parts Unknown,” is a departure for the relatively buttoned-down network. The program stars Bourdain, the famed chef, author and bon vivant, as he travels the country and the world for stories joining his love of food and drink with his embrace for locations that are way off the beaten track. The program reveals a fresh, compelling visual style, one that borrows from Current TV’s gritty documentary approach.

And “Parts Unknown” benefits from the willingness of its host to do just about anything in order to learn just about everything. Whether he’s knocking back shots of aguardiente with one of the locals on a beach in Colombia, or discussing the cultural history of stress positions while eating kim chi with residents of L.A.’s Koreatown, Bourdain may be showing the way forward for CNN. The early payoff is promising: TV Newser reported that the show’s second episode was the No. 1 show on cable news in the coveted 25-54 demographic last week. And the show’s viewer base grew from the week before. Stay tuned.

Image credits: MSNBC logo, "Lockup" title card, Finney: © 2013 MSNBC. "Up" title box: © 2013 MSNBC via Facebook. CNN logo: © 2013 CNN. Bourdain: via pastemagazine.com.

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