Op-Ed: Brian Williams’ Redemption? Fixing MSNBC

By Mark Joyella 

In a hyper-competitive fight for ratings as cable news viewership drops, MSNBC has seemed about as clever and competitive as a piano falling down a flight of stairs.

Last Wednesday, the network hit a ten-year-low with an average audience in the demo of just 50,000. From 4 p.m. to midnight, none of MSNBC’s shows was able to break 100,000 viewers in the demo, which has long been considered a cut-off for viability in cable news.

It wasn’t a fluke—the network’s shows on Friday again failed to break 100,000 in the demo, with Chris Hayes and Rachel Maddow both fighting not for second place against CNN, but for third place with Forensic Files on HLN.


So what to do? Recently-returned NBC News boss Andy Lack has to make changes, but Lack is a man whose stove has nothing but front burners. Brian Williams is on the front burner, as is Today, and Meet the Press.

But the end of the May book—when TV news fortunes are sealed, winners are heralded and losers are left without any more chances—seems a perfect time to close the chapter and start afresh.

And it all might start with a phone call…

Brian? It’s Andy. Got a minute?

Great. Look, it’s been a rough few months, but hey, at least you’re not George Stephanopoulos, am I right?

You ready to get back to work, my man?

Great. That’s what I like to hear.

Okay. Here’s what I’m thinking. Have you had a chance in your time off to watch MSNBC at all?

Say Yes to the Dress? I didn’t realize it had gotten to that point, Brian. You need to grab a shower and come to work. Look, here’s what I’m going to do. At four o’clock we’ve got a show called Now With Alex. That’s cancelled. Ed Show? Cancelled. Al Sharpton has a show, or had a show, I should say. That’s cancelled.

We’re killing all the “Lean Forward” branding, which has done nothing but make me lean forward over the garbage can in my office a few times, you hear me? I’m kidding, Brian. Mostly.

Anyway, here’s where you come in.

Nightly? Um, let’s circle back to that in a minute. Let’s focus on MS right now.

If you were back in Secaucus, what would you put on MSNBC from, say, 4 to 7?

Oh, it is? We spent 200 million on that place. So that’s why I keep seeing Ed Shultz at 30 Rock. Okay. Anyway, I’d be very interested to know what you think would work in place of all those shows I just cancelled. You like news? Caught on Camera? We have lots of that in the vault. Or Lockup. That’s gold.

But hey, at 7, I think we keep Matthews. We’re heading into a political campaign, and he’s kept his show competitive without any kind of lead-in, so I think it makes sense to keep him and Crossfire. Wait. It’s not called Crossfire, is it. Countdown? Look, Brian, would you figure out what that show is called and see if you can’t make it work for us?

No, no, I’m not making you Matthews’ EP. Ha. You really are a funny guy. And I have an idea on that, but look, first, I want to talk about 8 p.m. You know who anchored the best newscast that ever aired on MSNBC?

Ha. That’s true. No, but seriously, it was you, Brian. The News with Brian Williams. That was a great show, and I want to bring it back. With you, at 8. It won’t be Nightly, but it will be you, in the chair, doing it the way you’ve always wanted to do it.

All I ask is that you make the show entertaining and interesting. Beyond that, it’s your baby, Brian.

At 9—and you’re going to like this Brian—it’s you again. An hour to counter program whichever chef is on at CNN. You wanted to be Leno? You can do that. Want to end The News with a light kicker and then segue right into a monologue on The Brian Williams Show or Brian Williams Live or Brian Tonight? Do it. Bring on actors, comics, have a house band, do bits with Fallon, whatever you want. Just make it entertaining and interesting.

At 10—

No, we’re going to keep Maddow. Is the show called Maddow? Well, the numbers are still some of the best we’ve got, and with your Brian Williams Unplugged show as a lead-in, I have a feeling she’ll do well.

Oh, did I mention that the Last Word is history? Find out whoever hosts that show and let them know it’s cancelled. I’m thinking we re-air your 9 p.m. show at 11, or the news show, whichever is most interesting and entertaining.

Overnight we’re not taking any chances. It’s all Caught on Camera and Lockup, obviously.

Nightly? We’ll talk about Nightly. But let’s do this first, Brian. Okay? Great. I’ll see you Thursday.