February 28, 2014 by Cathy White
Phil Griffin, president of cable news network MSNBC, explained the tale of trials and tribulations that led to his success to students Feb. 25 in the Mitchell Auditorium .
Karen Curry, executive director of the Kal and Lucille Rudman Institute for Entertainment Industry Studies, interviewed Griffin before opening up the floor for questions from the audience.
The discussion started off with the story of MSNBC’s humble and somewhat unsuccessful beginnings. Griffin told of the initial intention to have Internet news by creating a joint venture with Microsoft in 1996, accompanying his story with a video clip.
“It was interesting. Bill Gates, the genius, actually thought the convergence of the television and the Web was going to happen in 1999,” Griffin said. “And it’s happening slowly and in different ways than anyone thought it was going to happen.”
Griffin explained that getting viewers and ratings didn’t go well at first. A few methods were tried, including some suggested by Roger Ailes, who is now the president of Fox News Channel. “He did political shows, health shows, cooking shows, sex shows — everything,” Griffin said, describing what he called the “petri dish” of networks.
This passed after about a year, leading to Ailes’ other suggestion, which was to make a conservative news platform, which was rejected, leading to Ailes’ departure for Fox News. Eventually, MSNBC developed a brand and became “the place for politics,” Griffin said.
Griffin remembered this branding moment: “We stood for something — politics. We weren’t just a general-interest news channel with a couple people in it.”
Eventually MSNBC realized that Ailes’ idea about standing for something was insightful, but they took it a different way with their own perspective of progressivism and liberalism.
“You have to stand for something to break up the clutter,” Griffin said. “We’re like Fox News in the sense that we have a point of view.”
Griffin recalled that he realized MSNBC was doing something right after a conversation he had with actor Samuel L. Jackson in an elevator.
“I’m in an elevator, and Samuel L. Jackson walks in. I know who he is. He doesn’t know who I am. And also, he says, ‘I’m going to give the first toast at the luncheon for the new first lady tomorrow.’ This was Inauguration Day,” Griffin said.
Eventually Jackson asked what Griffin did. “I said, ‘I run MSNBC,’ and we had just hit the first floor and the elevator door opened, and he held it, and he put his hand out and he said, ‘Thank you. Thank you for MSNBC.’”
To Griffin, this was what he described as the moment that he understood where media was in the world and when he understood what news stations like MSNBC and Fox, which have opinions and perspectives, mean to people. “That’s when I got it, and that’s when I got the new media age. Because it was emotional, it was connected, it was a community,” Griffin said.
However, he said he also felt the thank you was directed at MSNBC for being different than Fox in some regards. “That thank you said, ‘Thank you for taking on the great Satan, Fox News. Thank you for giving a voice that hadn’t been out there. Thank you for talking about issues that people weren’t talking about,’” Griffin continued.
MSNBC also prides itself on having what Griffin describes as homegrown people on its shows. The host-driven shows on MSNBC, such as “The Rachel Maddow Show,” started as guests who appeared a few times and then as guest hosts of a show before proceeding to get their own show. Griffin said he also admires their intelligence, calling the hosts of shows brainiacs and geniuses.
Kal Rudman of the Kal and Lucille Rudman Institute, which sponsored the event, spoke positively about it.
“As the financial sponsor, I cannot give enough praise to Karen Curry. And Karen Curry has brought the biggest of the big for the benefit of the students. You can’t imagine the value at this time of the inspiration that will stay with the people here forever,” Rudman said.
Freshman TV production major Jessica Franklin also saw the positives of the presentation. “I’m not politically involved compared to the rest of the audience,” Franklin said. “But I [did] really enjoy watching and learning about that aspect of the presentation.”
After the presentation, Griffin gave advice that anyone can use but was specifically meant for people who want to go into media.
“The smartest thing you can do is go somewhere and just, you know, see if you love it, if it’s really what you want to do. And if it is, be there. Do everything. There’s no job too small, and there’s no job too big. You want me to research something big? I’ll do it in my free time,” Griffin said. “If you love it and that comes across, and you do good work, and you really seem like you care, you’re going to succeed.”