When Talent Moves to Cable, Journalism Doesn’t Always Follow

A recent episode of ‘Race For the White House.’

“MSNBC and NBC are one,” said Phil Griffin. “We’ve said that for over a decade. It actually is true now.”

Mr. Griffin, the senior vice president of NBC News, was speaking on the phone to NYTV on Monday afternoon. He had brought up the unification of the two news operations as a way of explaining the internal politics underpinning the launch of MSNBC’s new prime-time show, Race for the White House, which premiered on March, 17 at 6 p.m., replacing Tucker.

Race for the White House is anchored by David Gregory, a longtime workhorse and rising star of broadcast sibling NBC News.

Mr. Griffin acknowledged that not long ago, when the MSNBC offices were still located in Secaucus, N.J., it might have been hard to imagine a made NBC News correspondent jumping at the opportunity to host a show for its cable news sibling.

But MSNBC’s recent move into 30 Rockefeller Center, according to Mr. Griffin, has changed the dynamic. The denizens of NBC News, he joked, now know that MSNBC staffers “don’t have three eyes.”

“There’s a different sensibility now,” said Mr. Griffin. “These guys are coming to MSNBC. They want to be Olbermann. They want to be on Morning Joe. They want to be on Dan Abrams. Everyone is trying to get on MSNBC.”

Last week, in addition to Mr. Gregory’s new show, NBC executives announced that Andrea Mitchell, arguably the most experienced correspondent on the NBC News team, would also begin appearing regularly on MSNBC, anchoring the 1 p.m. hour of dayside, beginning Monday, March, 24.

“I wish this had happened years ago,” said Mr. Griffin. “You have everybody interacting.”

To be sure, the intensity of this political season has hastened the melding of the MSNBC and NBC News brands, with broadcast stalwarts from Brian Williams to Tim Russert to Tom Brokaw appearing regularly on the cable news channel during debates and on big primary nights; and political director Chuck Todd bouncing back and forth between the two operations.

There have been some awkward moments along the way. And most of the outside analysis of the ongoing convergence has focused on whether the just-the-facts NBC reporters can safely navigate the opinionated wilds of MSNBC (see Shuster, David).

But NBC News and MSNBC have also differed on a more prosaic level in how they approach political coverage. Whereas NBC News invests heavily in original news gathering and highly produced news segments (a relatively expensive undertaking), MSNBC tends to invest in lightly produced talk and analysis (a much cheaper approach).

And the example of David Gregory tends to show that when talent migrates from NBC to MSNBC, those news-gathering budgets do not follow them.

In the forthcoming weeks, those inside the NBC News and MSNBC newsrooms will no doubt be watching Mr. Gregory’s show as an harbinger of what is to come—and presumably rooting for NBC Universal executives to begin directing Nightly News-type resources toward the fledgling show.

The early results appear mixed. To judge by the myriad promotions airing during Meet the Press and elsewhere on TV, NBC appears committed to spending money promoting the new show.

On the other hand, the show’s initial debut featured virtually no news gathering and no interviews with newsmakers and instead filled almost the entire hour with the observations of a pundit panel, consisting of longtime political analysts—Rachel Maddow, Gene Robinson, Joe Scarborough and Chuck Todd—already on the company payroll.

In the weeks to come, one reliable indicator of the investment or lack thereof in the new show will be how many producers Mr. Griffin and company assign to Race to the White House. MSNBC’s most successful show at the moment, Countdown With Keith Olbermann, currently employs upward of a dozen producers.

As of yesterday’s kickoff, according to sources, Race for the White House, employed two full-time producers left over from Tucker, two producers taken from elsewhere at MSNBC, and (as NYTV reported last week) Noah Oppenheim—a longtime favorite of Mr. Griffin who will be splitting his time between Today and the new show.

In short, NBC executives have somehow launched a highly touted new prime-time show (and an NBC News branded hour of dayside) without adding much of anything in the way of outside bodies. Depending on what happens with staff additions in the near future, what looks like corporate synergy in one light could quickly come to resemble something more akin to corporate penny-pinching and consolidation.

Mr. Griffin said that bottom-line considerations were besides the point in launching the new show. The addition of Mr. Gregory, he said, was done solely for editorial purposes.

“I’m not going to get into the money,” said Mr. Griffin. “But think about it. You have David Gregory, he’s on all these different platforms. We don’t have to get other people. From a business standpoint, it makes sense. From an editorial point of view, it makes sense. The guy is going to do the same amount of work whether he does that hour or not.”

“But that’s not the point,” he added. “He wants to do it. He raised his hand. He saw the opportunity.”

“What David is doing is incredibly smart,” he said. “He’s positioning himself beautifully. He’s on all platforms. You can either have your two minutes on the network, or you can have those two minutes and an hour and a Web page about that hour.”