On the morning of Monday, March 9th, liberal talk radio host Ed Schultz, who bills himself as the “most listened-to progressive radio talk show host in America,” announced on his Web site that he would be guest-hosting MSNBC’s 6 p.m. show 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue the following evening.
Word of the announcement promptly touched off a fresh set of rumors among MSNBC staffers that the network’s president Phil Griffin might be grooming Mr. Schultz to join the channel on a fulltime basis.
Mr. Schultz—whose eponymous radio program is broadcast from Fargo, North Dakota and is syndicated on more than a hundred radio stations around the country—is hardly a stranger to MSNBC where he regularly makes guest appearances on such programs as The Rachel Maddow Show and Hardball.
“They believe—and they’re probably right—that the skills you develop as a guy doing several hours of talk radio every day for a couple of decades are easily put to use in television,” said one network source. “Then again, Ed is really aggressive and a big self-promoter. So it could be him starting the rumors.
The opportunity to guest host on Tuesday night arose because Mr. Shuster will be filling in as a substitute anchor for Keith Olbermann on Countdown at 8 p.m.
Since January, when The New York Times first reported that MSNBC was looking to develop a new program at 10 p.m. that would “complement its left-leaning evening lineup” rumors have been flying around TV news-land about potential new hires, including such far-fetched possibilities as Dan Rather. To date, all the rumors have fizzled.
Recently, a number of liberal talk radio hosts, including Sam Seder and Cenk Uygur, have been publicly lobbying MSNBC President Phil Griffin to hire them for the 10 p.m. hour. Whether the lobbying has gained any traction inside 30 Rock is doubtful. But the public campaigns have succeeded at turning seemingly every guest appearance on MSNBC by an outside liberal into a speculative job audition among those who enjoy playing the-future-of-MSNBC parlor game.
Not long ago, Mr. Griffin told The Observer that his comment to The New York Times had been an off-hand remark and that no new program at 10 p.m. was imminent.
At the same time, several sources at MSNBC suggested to The Observer that the 6 p.m. hour—which David Shuster took over in December from newly minted Meet the Press moderator David Gregory—might still be in play.
MSNBC enjoyed a strong February, during which their total viewers in primetime increased 31 percent versus February of 2008, in large part thanks to the success of Rachel Maddow (who like Mr. Schultz comes from a background in liberal talk radio).
According to an MSNBC press release, 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue with Mr. Shuster at the helm contributed to the network’s overall strong month by increasing total viewers 49 percent (571,000 vs. 383,000) over February 2008.
That said, the show has struggled in recent weeks, attracting less than 100,000 viewers in the 25-54 demographic on a handful of occasions.
The 6 p.m. hour has long bedeviled MSNBC brass. In recent years, the network has tried a number of anchors (Tucker Carlson, David Gregory, and David Shuster) in the spot—which is sandwiched between the first run of Hardball and its repeat, and goes head to head not only with the competition on CNN and Fox News but also with the local and national broadcast evening news shows. To date, nothing has grown into a hit ratings-wise.
When contacted by The Observer, some sources at the network questioned whether MSNBC executives were committed to Mr. Shuster over the long haul.
“Phil Griffin has not been visible recently, which I always take to mean he’s cooking up something,” said one source, with knowledge of the inner-workings of the newsroom.
Is Mr. Schultz next in line for 6 p.m.? Or maybe 10 p.m.? Or maybe nothing?
“Ed is a regular on 1600,” said MSNBC spokesperson Jeremy Gaines. “He’s filling in for David tonight, while David fills in for Keith. It’s as simple as that.”