After Rachel Maddow signed a new multi-year deal with MSNBC and NBCUniversal, there were reports that she ultimately will scale back her schedule to as little as once-a-week. That would leave the network with the potential loss of the nightly show, with no obvious successor.
In an interview with Deadline after Maddow’s deal was signed, MSNBC president Rashida Jones was asked whether, with the new agreement, Maddow will continue to host her show five nights a week. “Her show will continue as she’s doing it now,” she said. “One of the things we are looking at is she is so interested and excited in doing things in so many different areas within NBCUniversal, so we are figuring out how to juggle all of that, but her show continues on.” As for the longer term, Jones suggests that details are still being worked out.
The potential for change in primetime is a test for Jones, who has been in the job for about six months, as MSNBC and other news networks, dependent on personalities with avid followings in their primetime lineup, wrestle with dramatic shifts in the business, an audience decline after last year’s ratings records, and grooming new and diverse talent.
Jones said, “One of the things that we’ve really been looking at for the last several months since I got here is not just primetime but across the board — how do we build more of a pipeline? How do we take the amazing talent that we have to position them for future thinking and future growth. It’s something we’re looking at across the board. How do we take some of the talent, both internal and external, groom them, develop them, so when opportunities rise… As I look at our bench and the folks that we have within our universe, I am excited to see as those folks continue to grow.”
Jones succeeded longtime head Phil Griffin on Feb. 1, and it came at another moment of transition for the network.
One of its original shows, Hardball, ended last year and was replaced by The ReidOut, hosted by Joy Reid, and the network has made a number of other moves to diversify its lineup. Tiffany Cross, Jonathan Capehart and Alicia Menendez are among those added to the weekend schedule in the past year, while one of its standout daytime personalities, Nicolle Wallace, got an expanded show in the late afternoon.
More recently, the network, like other cable news channels, has seen a big drop-off in viewers this year compared with 2020, which saw a presidential election, pandemic lockdowns and the flareups of the Trump administration. So the erosion had been, in many ways, expected.
But MSNBC and its rivals also have the challenge of drawing younger viewers who won’t take to the same media consumption habits. “Young people are voracious consumers of on-demand news content, not old-school linear TV networks, explaining why linear TV news network viewers are roughly twice as old as digital news consumers,” says Eason Jordan, CEO of Oryx Strategies, who was CNN’s chief news executive and president of news gathering and international networks.
“In this digital-first, cord-cutting era, TV news outlets must prioritize and optimize on-demand content, or risk going the way of the dinosaurs,” Jordan said via email.
Jones recently announced a series of projects to beef up MSNBC’s digital offerings, starting with a slight rebrand of the Peacock streaming channel The Choice to The Choice from MSNBC. More of the personalities from the network will be doing original content for the streaming channel including Wallace, Michael Beschloss and Mika Brzezinski, while some of the figures who have had shows on the streaming channel, like Mehdi Hasan, have gotten slots on the linear network.
Jones said that their focus has been “to kind of zero in on where younger audiences are consuming content, and one of our strategies has been, rather than just focus on bringing more eyeballs back to linear cable, how do we take the depth of connection that we have with our audience, the content that people are interested in, and how do we take it to where those younger audiences are?”
“Those audiences are definitely flocking to streaming platforms. They are flocking to audio. They are flocking to social media,” she said.
Jones, 40, has two children — aged 12 and 15 — and quips that “unless they see it on TikTok it’s not real or relevant to them.”
“What’s been interesting is how much of our content finds its way there, or just other platforms where you wouldn’t necessarily think, ’This is where people are getting news and information.’”
“We want to make sure we’re kind of being broad and relevant, so it is not necessarily just focusing on one platform, but how do we get this great content and show up where all the different places where people are consuming?” she said.
Jones also hired a new vice president of longform, Amanda Spain, to head up MSNBC Films, giving a boost to MSNBC’s output of nonfiction documentaries and specials. One of the bigger projects, Memory Box: Echoes of 9/11, will debut on MSNBC without commercials on September 8 at 10 PM ET, as well as on Peacock. The Yard 44 and NBC News Studios production, from filmmakers David Belton and Bjorn Johnson, revisits personal accounts of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, with the hundreds of hours of testimonials originally captured by artist Ruth Sergel. There also will be a special screening of the project at the Toronto Film Festival on the September 11 anniversary. MSNBC Films acquired another project, Paper and Glue, from French artist JR, which premiered at Tribeca and will debut on the network in January.
CNN has for a number of years had success with longform documentaries and miniseries, particularly on its weekend schedule.
Jones said that the approach “speaks to find ways to get our content and the type of programming that we do to new audiences. And as we look at even just viewing patterns and topics and areas where we can reach broader audiences, we really felt like longform was an opportunity to do that. We come into this with a deep connection to our audience. Our audience has a deep understanding of the type of journalism that we do. This takes that connection and brings it to a different space.”
Jones said that they are focusing on topics that aren’t necessarily tied to daily news events but “aren’t foreign to the MSNBC audience.”
The goal, she said, is “the consistency that audiences expect.”
Maddow’s multi-year deal included developing projects in partnership with NBCUniversal, reportedly via a new production company. “One of the things we are working with her to figure out is how do you take the work that she is doing and where else does it make sense. We don’t have any firm plans to share right now but we’re looking at all of the different places where her content could show up.”
Independent media consultant Brad Adgate said that such longform programming can be important to a news networks not just to build loyalty, but “it can increase ratings because you are watching the network for a longer period of time,” another factor important to advertisers.
But news networks in general are grappling with cord cutting and the migration of audiences to streaming. “At some point a majority of viewers will be online,” he said. “It is going to take a while, but what cable did to broadcast TV, streaming is doing to cable. You have got to be there” on the digital platforms. The question is whether Millennials and Gen Z establish the same viewing habits, but Adgate credits networks for experimenting, like CBS with CBSN, and moves to diversify with younger personalities, like Zerlina Maxwell on The Choice.
Jones grew up in York, PA, where she started a neighborhood newsletter in the third grade. “I loved writing, and I loved telling people what to do. And so my third grade self thought, ‘Well, maybe there’s a way to go interview people and talk to people.’ I get to be in charge and things and my two neighbors and my sister were a part of it. This was just kind of how I operated and how I worked. I didn’t even know that there were writing jobs in television until I got to college, and quickly changed gears.”
She said that she didn’t have any interest at all in being an on-air journalist, and even had originally pursued a print journalism major before changing course to broadcast, with an eye on producing. She went to Hampton University in Norfolk, VA, and interned at the local CBS affiliate. Her career path took her to jobs at The Weather Channel and to the job as news director for WIS-TV in Columbia, SC, before landing at MSNBC as executive producer for a daytime show hosted by Chris Jansing, in 2013.
She said that there was a difference between running a newsroom, with a focus on strategy and the big picture, and running a show, with the minute-by-minute demands. “I could not only apply some of those skills to the show format, but it became kind of a pain in the butt for my bosses, where I would also come to them and say, ‘Hey, we’re doing this thing on my show, but I think as a network we should be thinking about this.'”
“I did enough of that that within six months, my boss came to me and said, ‘You keep coming to me with how we should write things. I want to take you off the show. I want you to be the managing editor for all of our daytime programming, and apply some of the skills that you have to a broader platform, eight hours a day versus one hour.”
When she was named president of MSNBC last December, Jones had had dual roles, overseeing daytime programming at the network and as SVP of specials for NBC News and MSNBC, the latter an especially high-profile assignment during an election year. She also was the first African American woman to oversee a news network, something that she says is a “responsibility I don’t take lightly.”
“I think about every student sitting in a classroom, at some HBCU across the country, seeing this and thinking, ‘Wow. She did that. And maybe I could one day. Or maybe I could do something bigger or better.’ I think about it often because it’s a responsibility that I don’t want to take lightly. I don’t want to assume that either it is not something that could impact or drive someone’s decision making. It’s a part of how I carry myself. It’s a part of the membrane. Everything you are doing is, you’re doing it with someone watching and someone may be modeling. It’s something I am very proud of. It’s something I want my children to be proud of, and it’s something I take very seriously.”
When she became president on February 1, she announced one of her priorities would be to better differentiate between the daytime news programming and the analysis and perspectives — some may refer to it as opinion — in the evening.
Some of the daytime shows have been rebranded to add “reports” to the host’s name — i.e., Stephanie Ruhle Reports, Craig Melvin Reports — reflecting that it is hosted by a network journalist. “I think it’s important for people to understand what to expect from us, and so, you will 24 hours a day, you will get the same foundation of strong journalism. We have the same standards as far as the type of journalism that we report, but I think it is important for the audience to understand what to expect in any given daypart. I want them to understand that there is breaking news that happens, that we are in place to go for that information. I also want them to understand the difference between someone sharing their perspective on a story versus the reporting on that story.” The network points to total viewer Nielsen ratings wins over cable news rivals for such breaking news events as former President Donald Trump’s second impeachment trial and of President Joe Biden’s first address to Congress.
She said that their moves were made based on audience feedback. “One of the things we have looked at is there not being a clarity of what our programming is and what to expect. That was a huge priority for us, because we want to make sure we can dominate in both areas. Those are two different types of storytelling, and we want to make it clear to the audience when we are doing it, how we are doing it and how we are dominating in those areas.”
Asked how much of a problem she thinks it is that viewers overall may silo in their own news bubbles, she said, “I think it is a challenge in the world. I think one of our objectives is not to go into any story with a prescribed point of view. In my editorial meetings, I do not tell the team, ‘Here’s what we think about the vaccine, or here’s what we think about what’s happening in Afghanistan. Here’s what we think about the spread of Covid in these communities.’ What I really focus on is these are the stories that are important, but I really want, especially for our perspective shows, I really want the authenticity to come through for the host, as far as their take and their perspective on it.”
“And so while we can’t solve the bigger crisis of how people … gravitate towards a certain ideology, we do some to a certain level of authenticity.”
She even keeps the door open to adding a conservative host in primetime. “I think it just hurts your authenticity when you start trying to fill a perceived gap versus really looking at interesting points of view,” she said.
The network has built up a roster of more diverse voices across its schedule, as it has been the No. 1 cable news network among African American audiences. She said that they are continuing to look at underserved communities, including geographically — “not just being diverse geographically on a map but really getting into the communities and telling the stories of those who live in the communities, I think first and foremost is a huge priority.”
In the interview, Jones was asked about whether she worried that Maddow might actually leave the network, as rivals reportedly made overtures, according to reports on CNN and The Daily Beast. Maddow deal includes plans to develop projects in partnership with NBCUniversal.
“Rachel’s been clear from the beginning that MSNBC is her home. She loves what she is doing here. She loves the team. She loves the folks here,” she said. “I think every person, when you get to this point, and kind of your trajectory, you have to think about what makes most sense. This has been a home for her for a long time, and we are grateful to have her, and so I think [the negotiation] ended where it intended to end, and this is just kind of part of the process.”
Jones, as is obvious, shares a name with a well known Hollywood actress. “I mean, according to Twitter, we are the same person,” she said. “I have been saying with full clarity: Quincy Jones is not my father. My father’s name is Richard Adkins and he doesn’t mind being mistaken for Quincy Jones.”