Inside MSNBC’s Evolution: How Phil Griffin Is Tinkering With Network

Insiders familiar with part of MSNBC’s strategy tell TheWrap about changes already appearing on screen

rachel maddow chris hayes peter griffin

The cable news ratings war never allows for a ceasefire.

Sure, Fox News has long stood far out in front of the rest of the pack as the number-one rated network, but CNN and MSNBC’s battle for second has intensified over the years. For a good chunk of the Obama era, MSNBC propelled upward in large part to its sharp pivot to the left. In the lead up to Barack Obama’s campaign, and in the aftermath of his victory, MSNBC started to “Lean Forward.”

Commercials produced by Spike Lee depicted MSNBC anchors championing progressivism: Rachel Maddow donning a hard hat in front of the Hoover Dam; Chris Matthews speaking about the pursuit of happiness in front of Mount Rushmore; Chris Hayes riding his bicycle across the Brooklyn Bridge while talking about climate change, and Al Sharpton famously linking the Republican Party to stealing blueberry pie.

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The network’s progressive political push before and during the 2012 election worked: MSNBC won in primetime convention ratings over Fox News, winning the first night of coverage of the Democratic National Convention in total viewers and the 25-54 demographic. That night propelled the network to its first ever primetime viewers victory for a full week.

But once the election was over and politics was no longer at the top of Americans’ minds, MSNBC started losing viewers. Two years after record ratings, the network saw its lowest-rated quarter in seven years in the third quarter of 2014. It fell to third behind CNN in primetime total viewers and the demo. In total day viewers it was also third, but in the total demo, the network fell to fourth place, below CNN’s sister network HLN.

Aware his network has hit a rough patch in off-political season, Phil Griffin told The New York Times, “We’ve got to adjust; we’ve got to evolve.”

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“We have a good brand, a strong brand,” he added. “But we’ve got to get outside Washington and open up our aperture a little.”

And insiders close to the network told TheWrap the exodus from D.C. has already begun and will become more evident in the months ahead.

During summer and early fall, primetime anchor Chris Hayes traveled to a dozen states as part of “All In America” to cover issues including immigration, clean coal, wind turbines, hospital closures, inner-city crime.  Some of the states Hayes visited were Kentucky, Mississippi, North Dakota, South Dakota, North Carolina, Arizona, Illinois, and Georgia.

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Hayes’ reporting is just one example of Griffin’s desire to shift from exclusively offering pundits arguing over polarizing political issues to having his talent get out there and dig deeper into them.  26-year-old daytime anchor Ronan Farrow, whose ratings have surely failed to live up to Griffin’s expectations, recently went to Dallas to report on the Ebola crisis.

“We’re live in Dallas, Texas, which has become the frontline of now national concern over mounting cases of Ebola,” Farrow said at the top of a segment that delved into the clean-up process of the apartment now-deceased Ebola patient Thomas Eric Duncan was staying in.

Just this week, two of the network’s most important shows hit the road.

“This is why I came to Denver!” Rachel Maddow said Tuesday night from her live broadcast in Colorado. MSNBC’s highest-rated host ventured out to Denver to cover the state Senate race between Senator Mark Udall and Republican contender Cory Gardner.

“We are Buckeyes today,” Mika Brzezinski said Wednesday morning as she and Joe Scarborough hosted “Morning Joe” from The Ohio State University. The duo hosted the show from the National Middle Market Summit, where CEO’s and policy expert discuss the economy.

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And in the heat of summer, MSNBC sent Chris Hayes and anchor Craig Melvin to cover the chaotic scene in Ferguson, Missouri in the aftermath of the shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown. The duo bunkered down there for a full week of coverage, making news as the victims of rocks being thrown by protestors. Hayes interviewed police officials and protestors on his primetime show throughout the week.

Insiders familiar with that programming decision told TheWrap sending Hayes to Ferguson was simple: it was a story MSNBC should own, and the network couldn’t analyze the issue from the sidelines while its competitors had multiple anchors on the ground, covering the story wall-to-wall.

It also should be noted it was Hayes, one of the more reporter-focused commentators on the network–and not Al Sharpton, a polarizing opinion host at MSNBC  most linked with race-related stories–to report on the ground in Ferguson.

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Insiders familiar with the network’s strategy told TheWrap the pivot from solely covering the nitty gritty of D.C. politics from studios to thrusting talent into the places most affected by the politics is just a small part of a broader strategy the network is still developing. As speculated, that could include programming and talent changes in the coming months.

Will this part of the network’s strategy work?

“It will depend on whether they pick topics people want to know more about and whether they are willing to tell the story without a political agenda,” Al Thompkins, senior faculty for broadcasting and online atThe Poynter Institute, told TheWrap.

One thing is clear. Phil Griffin isn’t merely throwing out empty executive rhetoric when he says his network will evolve.

Over the last few years, MSNBC suggested to “Lean Forward.”  Maybe now, to help spark ratings and reignite its brand, the network is dusting the old slogan off and making a tweak to: “Beyond D.C.”

MSNBC declined to comment to TheWrap for this story.