Jan 30, 2022 - Economy

Inside MSNBC's big shakeup

Screenshot: MSNBC's "Morning Joe"

When Axios broke the news Wednesday night that MSNBC was extending "Morning Joe" by an hour and replacing Brian Williams at the 11pm ET hour with Stephanie Ruhle, even top producers were caught off guard.

  • Network executives weren't planning to announce lineup changes for another few weeks in February. Negotiations were ongoing.

Why it matters: The leak sent leaders at MSNBC scrambling to address questions internally about what a fourth hour of "Morning Joe" would look like, including which producers would be responsible for the additional programming, and how a 9am hour would cater to a West Coast audience.

  • Given that MSNBC President Rashida Jones and NBCUniversal News Group Chairman Cesar Conde first approached the "Morning Joe" hosts with the plan around two weeks ago, many of the details weren't fully baked, according to a source familiar with the discussions.

Details: With "Morning Joe" marking its 15th year in September, and with ratings continuing to beat CNN in the mornings, Jones, Conde and other executives thought an extension of the show made sense. But they only began to consider it seriously a few weeks ago, once it was decided that Ruhle would move to the 11pm hour, leaving her 9am slot open.

  • Hosts Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski, who are married and deeply involved in the show's day-to-day operations, were excited about the idea but had questions about what the extension would mean for their staff, according to a source familiar with their thinking.
  • In addition to producing "Morning Joe" from 6 to 9am ET, the same team also produces "Way Too Early" at 5am ET.
  • An additional hour at 9am ET would open up an opportunity for "Morning Joe" to address West Coast audiences. But that also meant the show's team would need to figure out new coverage plans.
  • Ruhle, a senior business correspondent for NBC News and a former bank executive, anchored the show when markets opened and often brought on guests based on the West Coast to talk about tech and business news.

Catch up quick: Even before Williams' departure last winter, senior executives began mulling significant lineup changes in 2022, according to two sources familiar with their thinking.

  • A top priority would be leaning further into familiar franchises and figuring out how top talent could be utilized to boost streaming efforts.
  • In August 2020, the network announced it would be expanding Nicolle Wallace’s show, "Deadline: White House," to two hours and would move Chuck Todd's weekday show, "MTP Daily" (for "Meet the Press") earlier in the afternoon.
  • Later, the network's highest-rated star, Rachel Maddow, reached a multiyear deal with NBCUniversal to run a production company that would broaden her portfolio of projects with the network, but would remove her from her day-to-day hosting duties at the 9pm ET primetime hour later in 2022.

Be smart: Several staffers Axios spoke with said leaders were caught off guard when the story broke.

  • Just hours before Axios' story published, NBC News leaders hosted a call with staff about network updates. The topic of who would replace Maddow and Williams was one of the first questions they were forced to answer.
  • Jones said she would tell employees more about the 11pm ET hour when there was something to share. She didn’t provide an update on who would replace Maddow, but noted that Maddow’s not going far.
  • Another source said Jones was unable to get on the phone with staffers of "The 11th Hour," Williams' former turf, before the news came out.
  • Asked for comment, Jones said: "We are very excited for our viewers to be rolling out the new lineup for 'Morning Joe' and Stephanie, and how their voices fit in our broader vision for programming during this consequential year.”

What's next: Ruhle is expected to begin anchoring "The 11th Hour" in a few weeks, according to a network source familiar with MSNBC's plans. Staffing plans and production logistics for the 9am hour are still being worked out.

Disclosure: NBC is an investor in Axios and Sat Brainch, chief commercial officer of NBCU News Group, is a member of the Axios board. Axios journalists appear on MSNBC.

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