What Happens at MSNBC After Brian Williams Exits? | Analysis

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“No network position really, anymore, is Walter Cronkite sitting in the same chair for decades,” one observer says

Brian Williams
Brian Williams

Brian Williams’ newly-announced departure from MSNBC may not be the “death of cable news” but it’s definitely not great news for MSNBC as cable news outlets face ongoing ratings declines, media experts told TheWrap.

MSNBC already went through an intense round of “what happens next” speculation when prime time star Rachel Maddow renewed her contract this summer but said she planned to step away from nightly hosting duties in favor of specials.

Now Williams, known for his quick-witted humor and straight-laced delivery on the late news slot, will leave the NBCUniversal-owned network at the end of this year after three decades, leaving vacant the cable channel’s 11 p.m. nightly news slot where he reigned for five years. The move puts immense additional pressure on the second-rated cable news network and its new leader Rashida Jones.

“This is the end of a chapter and the beginning of another,” Williams announced Tuesday, leaving media pundits a gaping hole to fill with speculation. “There are many things I want to do, and I’ll pop up again somewhere.”

Williams’ exit will be “a big blow, obviously, to MSNBC because he has a lot of loyal, loyal followers,” Peter Csathy, chairman of media and tech advisory firm CREATV Media, told TheWrap. Rachel Maddow and Brian Williams are, he said, “tentpoles” of the cable news network’s lineup and the one-two punch of them stepping away from nightly hosting will combine to be “a big loss.”

Brian Williams Screenshot

But to some degree, it’s the nature of news hosting in this era, said veteran media observer Al Tompkins of the Poynter Institute.

“It’s the maturing of really talented people in their position,” he said. “No network position really, anymore, is like Walter Cronkite sitting in the same chair for decades. That’s not how the talent cycle works in media anymore. People move around. They don’t keep doing the same old thing. The other thing is that when Walter Cronkite sat in the chair for those years, there weren’t that many opportunities to be able to move around.”

Csathy stressed that “these people changing positions should not be seen as the death of cable, but instead to recognize that we’re in a different era where people don’t stay put forever.”

“Cable news is in decline,” he explained, noting, as Tompkins did, that streaming sites, expanded television channel options and even podcasts are giving talent a variety of options they didn’t have before — and Williams probably won’t fade from public view, though MSNBC said Tuesday he is leaving to “spend time with his family.”

The rumors that CBS is unhappy with prime time anchor Norah O’Donnell would surely not have escaped Williams’ notice. And those close to Williams say he still yearns for a chance to host a late night talk show, where he got in trouble after falsely claiming that he had been in a helicopter hit by enemy fire during the Iraq War.

Since then, the veteran newsman may feel he has been rehabilitated. But that doesn’t help MSNBC, which finished No. 2 across all of basic cable in average total prime time viewers (1.27 million) and No. 2 in average total day viewers (738,000) in the third quarter of this year, according to Nielsen.

Jeffrey McCall, a professor of communications at DePauw University, added he’s “not terribly surprised to see this happening.”

He cited Williams’ ratings being “down, pretty much, over the last year.” That’s true: Williams’ ratings are down, but so, too, are ratings all across cable news. Last year was, after all, the year of not only a contentious presidential election, but a national reckoning over race and a global pandemic. There was a healthy news appetite that has abated under President Biden’s administration.

The big question for MSNBC is what sort of programming should replace Williams’ news show. Tompkins pointed out that Williams has a knack for moving stories forward, which is tricky during a night-time program, where the news of the day is often rehashed.

Rachel Maddow crying Mexico border

And the direct competition in that time slot on Fox is “Gutfeld!” hosted by Greg Gutfeld on Fox. That show is a talk show comedy program, not a news program, and it has achieved its goal of beating the broadcast late-night shows in ratings — not to mention the other cable news programs with which it competes.

For comparison, in December of 2020, Fox News’ 11 p.m. ET offering, “Fox News at Night,” trailed Williams with 1.307 million total average viewers, of whom 256,000 were in the demo. Last week, “Gutfeld!” scored 1.981 million total average viewers, with 347,000 in the demo.

In December 2020, Williams’ “11th Hour” averaged 2.056 million views, of whom 313,000 were in the advertiser-coveted age demographic. Compare that total to last week, when he averaged 979,000 total viewers and 146,000 demo viewers.

Note, too, that CNN’s “Don Lemon Tonight” brought in just 438,000 total average viewers last week, with just 106,000 of them being in the demo. “The 11th Hour” beat CNN and Fox News in total average viewers for four straight years, a streak that only ended after 2020, when Fox News’ 11 p.m. slot changed formats.

“Gutfeld does better with younger demographics,” McCall said. “All the channels are obsessed with trying to get younger demographics and Gutfeld is doing that. Brian Williams could not.”

Younger people also tend to turn more toward streaming than traditional television, so the 11 p.m. ET hour may not entice the key demo, no matter who MSNBC installs.

Would MSNBC consider a more light-hearted show at that hour? A spokesman declined comment for this story.