Original Cable Guy Phil Griffin Tastes Network Revenge

On the afternoon of Thursday, Oct. 23, around 1 p.m., Phil Griffin, the president of MSNBC, reached into his back pocket and pulled out his wallet.

Mr. Griffin was sitting at a table at the Sea Grill restaurant, overlooking the ice rink at Rockefeller Plaza, the nerve center of NBC. From the wallet, he pulled out a tattered CNN work ID from the early ’80s, a memento, he said, from his first job in TV. He always kept the CNN badge on him. “Not sure why,” he said.

He cast a sideways glance at the photo of his 20-something-year-old self, smiling from beneath a mop of brown hair, which has since mostly disappeared with age. At the time, he was a recent college grad who had joined Ted Turner’s journalism experiment in its embryonic stages.

Mr. Griffin said that when CNN aired for the first time, on June 1, 1980, he was in the studio, working behind the camera. Roughly a quarter-century later, he was helping lead his favorite fun-house medium into respectable middle age. 

“A lot of people like to make fun of cable,” said Mr. Griffin. “They think it’s something for people who don’t get news. No. It’s for people who really understand news, want depth and want it from people they connect to.”

Mr. Griffin—a guy’s guy with a runner’s physique who starts every day with a jog on the treadmill in front of Morning Joe—ordered the yellow fin tuna over greens and launched into a story.

Recently, someone suggested to him a person—a Very Important Person—who wanted a show on MSNBC. He scoffed.

“It’s not worth taking a risk on someone who might be a big name, but isn’t going to put everything into it,” said Mr. Griffin.

MSNBC had made that particular mistake in the past. Mr. Griffin said he had lived through the grim days when the channel was about “throwing anything against the wall to see if it would stick,” resulting in a series of failed shows by the likes of Michael Savage, Phil Donahue, Jesse Ventura and Alan Keyes.

Earlier this fall, he green-lighted a show starring Rachel Maddow, a relatively unknown liberal pundit with a quick mind and a relentless work ethic. Less than two months in, the show was taking off, holding on to a large chunk of Keith Olbermann’s 8 p.m. audience and regularly beating CNN’s Larry King Live among young viewers.

The previous afternoon, Mr. Griffin had ducked out of his office to watch his 12-year-old daughter, Riley, compete in a volleyball tournament (he also has a son, Jackson, age 11). While there, he got some good news. The previous night, MSNBC had pulled off a big ratings victory, averaging more viewers than CNN and Fox News in the 25-to-54-year-old demographic, for a three-hour stretch of prime time from 8 p.m. to 11 p.m.

When the tournament ended, he congratulated his daughter. “She won her three games,” said Mr. Griffin. “I went to high-five her. And I said, ‘Hey, we beat Fox and CNN.’ She gave me a high five back. My kids are into it. They understand it’s a competition.”

Hypercompetitiveness runs in the family, said Mr. Griffin, who grew up as the youngest of four siblings in a secular family in Chappaqua, N.Y. His dad was a hard-driving business man who worked in retail. His mom was a progressive stay-at-home intellectual, who drove a car with the bumper sticker that read, “Question Authority.”

Mr. Griffin told a story about how some 20 years earlier, at a birthday celebration for his mom in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, he had torn his rotator cuff during a heated push-up contest against his brother John. He rubbed his shoulder. The sucker still hurt.

These days, John is a top executive at the National Geographic Society. Mr. Griffin’s sister, Abby, is a midwife in Pennsylvania. His other brother, Peter, is the number two editor at Esquire. On Thursday night, the brothers Griffin convened for dinner at Porter House in the Time Warner Center. Afterward, they went out for drinks. “We stayed out later than was wise,” John Griffin told The Observer a few days later. “We’re Irishmen. That’s the problem.”

“He had a much more outgoing personality than the rest of us. He always had a lot of friends,” he said.

He added: “But I have a faster marathon time than him. Put that down.”

When Phil Griffin was 11 years old, his family moved to Ohio. For years, the young Mr. Griffin kept a poster of the New York skyline hanging over his bed. He’d be back. (If you check out the footage of the ’86 World Series, you can see him on TV slapping a high five with Gary Carter in the dugout after Game 6.)

In 1979, Mr. Griffin graduated from Vassar College, where he wrote his thesis on Milton’s Paradise Lost. He then headed to New York, hoping to land a job in TV—vaguely inspired by fandom for Phil Donahue. But like many an English major before him, Mr. Griffin struggled to impress potential New York employers with his technical knowledge of such things as foreshadowing and allusion. Eventually, he went to Atlanta for a minimum-wage job helping to get CNN off the ground.

Mr. Griffin stayed at CNN for several years, working primarily as a writer-producer-editor in the sports department. Along the way, he befriended an unconventional sportscaster named Keith Olbermann—the first of many times that their career paths would intersect. In 1983, Mr. Griffin jumped to NBC News, as a sports and news producer for Today, working under the tutelage of legendarily hard-charging executive producer Steve Friedman.

Original Cable Guy Phil Griffin Tastes Network Revenge