MSNBC Boss: Rival CNN Has ‘A Big Challenge In Front Of Them’

by | July 30, 2010 at 6:13 PM | Cable News, TV News

MSNBC president Phil Griffin with host Lawrence O'Donnell (Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images)

MSNBC president Phil Griffin with host Lawrence O'Donnell (Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images)

The challenge that Larry King’s retirement presents for CNN is being followed by a lot of people, but few more so than Phil Griffin, president of one of CNN’s biggest rivals, NBC-owned MSNBC.

“Look, I think they’ve got a big challenge in front of them,” Griffin said when Fancast spoke to him Friday at the Television Critics Association summer press tour in Los Angeles. “They’ve got this fantastic brand, and were beating them – soundly.”

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Griffin was commenting on several programming changes in the works at CNN, including the loss of King, who will likely be replaced by British TV personality Piers Morgan at 9 pm weeknights. (An announcement is expected imminently.) Morgan is best-known as one of the three judges on ‘America’s Got Talent,’ but his interviewing skills are untested on American TV.

Larry King Live‘ at 9 pm is not the only time period getting a makeover at CNN. The news channel is also preparing a new 8 pm talk show co-hosted by scandalized former New York governor Eliot Spitzer and conservative journalist Kathleen Parker.

Spitzer and Parker are replacing an hourlong talk show previously hosted by Campbell Brown, who has left CNN. Since last fall, the network has lost stalwarts Erica Hill, correspondent on Anderson Cooper’s ‘AC 360′ who left to take up residence full-time at CBS (where she’s seen on ‘The Early Show’), and the curmudgeonly Lou Dobbs, the last of the original CNN anchors who left the network last November.

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But Griffin says he’s more focused on MSNBC’s own lineup changes in prime time – the cable TV home of Rachel Maddow and Keith Olbermann – than CNN’s. MSNBC is spending the summer getting its new 10 pm show – “The Last Word with Lawrence O’Donnell” – ready for its premiere Sept. 27.

“I’m not going to worry about them,” he said of CNN. “I’ve got enough troubles for myself. I recognize that they’re going to do everything they can to come back at us. They’ve been too successful and they have too much revenue at stake not to.

But, that said, we have a vision. We have a real sense of who we are. Everything we do has a lens that it goes through, and Lawrence [O'Donnell] fits through that lens,” Griffin said.

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The multi-faceted O’Donnell, 54, has been a political insider (he was an aide to the late New York senator, Daniel Patrick Moynihan), TV writer and producer (‘The West Wing’), an author (1983’s Deadly Force about a police brutality case) and an actor (he recurs as an attorney on ‘Big Love’). He’s also been a long-time political analyst who has appeared many times on all the MSNBC talk shows.

“I’m not going to comment on what [CNN is] doing because who knows, they may get it right,” Griffin said. “But one thing that we’ve done is we’ve developed the people on our own air, and then we put them into big positions.

“That’s a whole lot different,” he said, adding a comment that could be interpreted as a dig at his CNN rivals for the way they develop programs: “I’ve been there where you just throw stuff against the wall to see if it sticks. And it might. I’m not saying it won’t. I’m just saying… that’s a gut-wrenching thing to do every time.”

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Griffin said he feels O’Donnell will draw ratings on par with Olbermann’s. “I know, at the very least, that Lawrence is going to do Keith’s numbers, because he has. He’s done it. I knew Rachel [Maddow] was going to, because she had. This is thought out, and that’s why I feel so good about the position we’re in. We’ve thought it out, we grow [our talent] on our air, we develop them, they fill in, they hold the number, and we move on.”

It looks like the cable news wars are heating up – just in time for the fall season and the midterm congressional elections this November.

(Additional reporting by Matt Webb Mitovich)