Last April, when Andy Lack returned to NBC to take the reins of the beleaguered news operation he had deftly run for eight years from 1993-2001, he had to play fire chief -- and fast. Megastar anchorman Brian Williams was benched for his resume-inflating lack of truthiness, the cash juggernaut the “Today” show had become an also-ran to ABC's “Good Morning America” --and MSNBC was bleeding viewers and in the midst of an identity crisis.
When Lack completes the first year of his return engagement next month, he will have a couple of things to celebrate. The “NBC Nightly News” with William's replacement Lester Holt is No. 1, and “Today” often beats "GMA" in the coveted 25-54 news demo, as well as on occasion is overall viewers. MSNBC, however, remains -- in the most generous terms -- a work in progress.
However, even there, Lack may be able to make lemonade out of a lemon situation, now that Brian Williams is firmly ensconced as MSNBC's prime news anchor after his six-month suspension.
All the key NBC News franchises in Lack's domain, including Williams, have benefited from “The Donald effect,” which has also been a bonanza not only for the Peacock news machine, but for all its main competitors. Not since the O.J Simpson murder trial over 20 years ago have news organizations -- in particular, cable news networks -- feasted on ratings bait as they have on “The Apprentice: White House Edition.”
Just this week, all the cable news organizations were crowing about respective ratings success. Fox News, the most successful of all, could rightfully brag about not only increasing its years of crushing the competition, but being the No. 1 cable networks in total day viewing for a record-breaking seven weeks in a row. CNN claimed bragging rights as well as the No. 4-rated cable network. And, yes, MSNBC, on Trumpian steroids, while still an also-ran, could tout its double-digit audience growth.
Lack has been unabashed in his news organizations going Trump-heavy -- and, in the case of MSNBC's “Morning Joe,” arguably slavishly Donald-centric. Lack knows what gets an audience in the tent.
Interesting to note, it was under Lack's leadership during his first go-around at NBC News that “Today” and “NBC Nightly News” went heaviest with O.J. Simpson coverage, helping cement both as dominant franchises. Lack is lucky to have Donald's prime-time White House run handed to him on a gold-plated platter and is well-practiced in making the best of this good fortune.
Two years before Lack's tenure, MSNBC had already backed off its “Lean Forward” marketing campaign, touting itself as the progressive alternative to FNC's rightward tilt. Logically, in an election year, more emphasis was put on MSNBC's slogan “The Place for Politics,” a catchphrase the network first touted during the 2008 presidential campaign. Lack underscored a move away from that positioning by putting an emphasis on breaking news during the day, with Williams as the main man -- and, save biggest star Rachel Maddow, shedding the network's most left-leaning voices. Witness the messy departure of Melissa Harris-Perry, who left her weekend show, charging her MSNBC bosses had marginalized her because of her progressive political views.
I'm certain there was awareness at MSNBC, given the digital news ecosystem, that the demo attracted to left-of-center news and commentary was going elsewhere for that content. In fact, t+he young demo driving Bernie Sanders' White House bid are more likely to be going digital “to feel the Bern” on Buzzfeed, Mic, The Young Turks or Vice. These days the likes of Rachel Maddow has to compete for Millennials, as well as old lefty Baby Boomers, with “The Daily Show,” “Last Week with John Oliver' and Bill Maher, too -- all of whom manage to do the job with more verve, often more in-depth reporting and certainly more humor.
Lack and crew will have some big choices to make about MSNBC come the day after Election Day. My guess is that the rehabilitation of Brian Williams will be complete by then. He's brought a Major League game to his co-anchoring on big primary and caucus nights, where most of his competitors are distinctly Triple-A players in comparison.
At one point when he was anchor of "Nightly News," Williams campaigned to succeed Jay Leno on “The Tonight Show” and floated a similar scenario to CBS chief Leslie Moonves for David Letterman's job. I don't think he's headed for late night, but by this time next year, I'm laying odds he has a prime-time talk show on MSNBC.