MSNBC President Grilled on the TV News Dogfight

Phil Griffin: “We blew most of the decade. Only in 2006, 2007 did we start to come into our own”

In the frenetic, feisty world of cable news, Fox News had its best year ever in 2009 — scoring the highest ratings of its 13-year history. That wasn’t surprising. But this was: MSNBC beat CNN for the first time in the prime-time demo. TheWrap recently grilled Phil Griffin, MSNBC’s president, about the dogfight with CNN, why MSNBC “blew” most of the decade, and its well-publicized feud with Fox News — and why he “won’t forget” it in 2010.

Give me your take on the decade for MSNBC.
We blew it. I think we blew most of it. Only in 2006, 2007 did we start to come into our own.

When cable news started, we did a lot of crime. There was O.J., the Clinton scandal, then the 2000 election, then 9/11. Then things really changed. After 9/11 things got a lot more political. At the end of the decade, we found a voice in Keith Olbermann and Chris Matthews. And Rachel Maddow has been a huge addition. But it took most of it to get a better sense of identity.

We’re coming off [2008] our best year ever. Overall, our numbers are down a little bit, but we expected that after the election. We projected that. And we reached our goals in terms of advertising. And we beat CNN. That was the headline.

Was that one of your goals this year?
In January, when I had my Town Hall meeting, our number-one goal was to beat CNN in prime-time. It was a real achievement. I’m not sure I really believed it when I said it. But we beat them. For the first time.

What do you attribute that to? Was it a case of MSNBC beating CNN? Or CNN falling back? Or both?
I think the success we had in 2008, what happened was, people stayed with us. We had an audience – a real audience – for the first time. I’m not sure we had that before. People were tuning in to see us.

We made the commitment to politics. Keith and Chris were very vocal in their opposition of the war. They were very knowledgeable and people responded to that. I’d say a turning point was the “Mission Accomplished.” You had the administration puffing out their chests, and Keith and Chris immediately jumped on that. "What are you talking about?"

That led to a very strong audience. I supported them in that.

But didn’t their opinionated views also lead to pressure to take them off the election?
Look, honestly, there was a lot of angst at MSNBC this last election. There was a certain amount of … chaos. We brought David Gregory in to anchor our coverage, and we had a great night. I think it was blown out of proportion.

What changes are you planning for 2010?
Our morning and prime-time lineup is strong as it’s ever been. Prime-time and Morning Joe. And I want to get that same energy in our daytime programming. We need to beef up our news coverage during the day, make it faster paced. We need to deal with the news of the day in a faster and smarter way. And that way we can have a strong lead-in to that prime-time lineup, which is strong.

I’ve got nothing [specific] planned. We just gave Chuck Todd and Savannah Guthrie a slot, we’re going to be moving Dylan Ratigan to afternoons. I’m excited about that. I want to shore up daytime, but nothing dramatic.

When I turn on MSNBC on the weekend, it’s not news. It’s documentaries and crime specials …
Our weekends are strong with documentaries. Monday to Friday is news – and not a lot of news happens on the weekends.

What about the Detroit terror plot? CNN and Fox covered the event live; MSNBC did not, and was criticized for it. What was the rationale?
We covered the story throughout the afternoon and evening, cutting into our regular programs.  Had there been any new developments that evening, we would have covered them.  But, there weren't and I'm comfortable with the decision.

But doesn’t that dilute the “news” brand? Doesn’t it conflict with MSNBC’s position as a “news” network?
The programming on the weekend helps the brand, and contributes to our success during the week. What we want to do is develop the brand. Everyone is trying to figure out what to do on the weekends. What we’re trying to do is to develop the brand. CNN has an incredibly strong brand. And we beat them in prime-time. Now we’re trying to beat them in daytime.

There has been additional pressure on them. They have to figure out who they are. The fact they touted beating us in daytime – when prime-time is what advertisers care about.

Look, I don’t expect them to give up. CNN has the best brand in news. We’ve got to continue to push hard. I don’t want it to be this close. I want to break away from them. It’s a dogfight, and I don’t want it to be a dogfight. I want to pull away.

Fox News is a different animal. They have done very well. But we’re not just going to turn over and give them those viewers.

What have you taken from Fox News’ success in cable news? What can you take from it? What can you emulate?
Fox knows their audience. They’re a powerhouse for conservatives, for people who feel they’ve been slighted or are outside the system. The anti-establishment I like to call them. But we’re not trying to emulate Fox News. Our audience likes to know every detail of an issue.

Listen, my goal is getting our brand out there, letting people know what we’re up to, because not enough people do. That’s why I’m very bullish on 2010.

How has the Comcast sale agreement affected your job? How do you anticipate it will?
I don’t see a change. MSNBC is a very valued part of NBC Universal, and I anticipate it will continue to be. It’s our job to strengthen the brand …

What if Comcast decides to rebrand NBCU?
I don’t believe it.

What about you personally? You’ve been with MSNBC forever …
I love the challenge. We’ve got a long way to go and a lot to do. Our identity is established, but we could be much bigger than we are.

I want to ask you about the whole “truce” with Fox News and News Corp., which was widely reported this past summer.
Do you watch MSNBC? I don’t think anything changed. At all.

OK, so there was never a “truce”? Can you set the record straight?
Look, Fox loves to attack us. And loves to attack our parent company. I don’t like the word “truce.” Do we talk about tone? Absolutely. They say things about us that are wrong, and we correct them, get the facts straight.

And some of the things they said were outrageous, by the way. And just wrong. We won’t forget that.