Original Cable Guy Phil Griffin Tastes Network Revenge

At the time, Today was waging an intense war for ratings supremacy with Good Morning America. Mr. Griffin thrived on the one-upmanship. After the 1986 Super Bowl, Mr. Griffin managed to book Chicago Bears star William “the Refrigerator” Perry for a live interview to take place the following morning. That day, before dawn, Mr. Griffin met the Fridge and strategically took him out for as many a.m. hamburgers as the mammoth lineman could eat. Along the way, Mr. Perry lost track of time and missed his appointment to do a pretape interview with Good Morning America. “Steve Friedman was the happiest guy in the world,” said Mr. Griffin. “It’s that ethic that has landed me here.”

For roughly the next decade, Mr. Griffin bounced around NBC News in a variety of jobs, making key friendships along the way. He did several stints at Today (where he befriended a young producer on the rise named Jeff Zucker, who is now president of NBC Universal and Mr. Griffin’s boss). He traveled the world from Kuwait to Panama as a producer for Nightly News (where he befriended Tom Brokaw, who now serves as the paterfamilias of NBC News). And he spent a year living in the Beverly Wilshire hotel in Los Angeles, coordinating the network’s coverage of the O. J. Simpson trial (where he befriended a young David Gregory, now host of MSNBC’s Race for the White House).

Likewise, he said he always loved working the stories (reporting on warlords in Somalia, covering the run-up to the first Gulf War) but couldn’t always fathom the traditional concerns of network news. “Nightly was a lot stuffier than the Today show,” said Mr. Griffin. “They could discuss ‘a’ and ‘the’ forever. Do you say ‘a’ or ‘the’? I never really fit into that. I didn’t really care.”

In 1996, when NBC News and Microsoft announced that they were teaming up to create a cable news channel, Mr. Griffin eagerly signed on, despite the misgivings of some of his colleagues at NBC News. “People were pretty wary of it at that point,” said Mr. Griffin. “At that point, and now.”

In 1997, he threw a “surprise wedding” for his then girlfriend (and now wife) Kory at Joe’s Fish Shack on the Upper West Side. “Guests described the wedding as everything from ‘extreme’ and ‘insane’ to ‘perfect for the couple,’” read the announcement in The New York Times.

Over the next several years, Mr. Griffin helped produce a number of shows at MSNBC. At one point, he was the executive producer for his longtime pal Keith Olbermann. At another stage, he was EP for Chris Matthews. Eventually, he made the leap into management. 

In July of this year, after roughly three years of working as the executive in charge of MSNBC and Today, Mr. Griffin gave up his morning show responsibilities and became president of MSNBC. “Now I have ownership,” said Mr. Griffin. “It’s my baby.”

As such, Mr. Griffin is now charged with managing many of the anchors and reporters whom he became friends with over the years. “It’s complex,” said Mr. Griffin. “There’s good and bad. In the end, I think it’s a positive. I’d much rather deal with someone on a human level than from a distance, barking orders.”

Mr. Matthews described Mr. Griffin’s management style as gung-ho. “He’s cheerleading,” said Mr. Matthews. “He’s on the bench. He’s a hustler. He likes hustle. He likes success.”

“He’s a competitor,” added Mr. Matthews. “It’s not accident that he’s a Mets fan. He doesn’t go with the sure thing. He doesn’t mind being the underdog. I think he’d rather have his heart in the game and win the big upset than with the easy establishment position.”

One of the other tricky management tasks facing Mr. Griffin is the ongoing challenge of merging MSNBC and NBC News. Last year, in the fall of 2007, after years of purgatory in New Jersey, MSNBC finally moved its headquarters from Secaucus into 30 Rockefeller Plaza, alongside the members of NBC News. The move was made both to save money and to foster better synergy between the two news divisions during the presidential election.

The transition has not been without some drama. MSNBC and NBC News each have their own set of stars and distinct journalistic values. At times, over the past year, those values and stars have clashed.

Mr. Griffin said that he has an enormous amount of respect for NBC News. And he expects the same in return.

“I never hid the fact that I loved cable,” said Mr. Griffin. “When I would come back and talk to the network guys, I wore it proudly. To the point where some of the guys called me Cable Guy. Which was annoying.”

But probably worth it, now.

fgillette@observer.com