Abrams Reports for Duty:
MSNBC's legal correspondent on his transition to management
Dan Abrams, MSNBC
MSNBC marks its 10th year on the air this summer, but there isn't a lot to celebrate. Even with the muscle of NBC News behind it, the cable news network has lagged in third place behind Fox News Channel and CNN in recent years. The powers that be at 30 Rock hope to jump-start the operation with the surprising appointment of Dan Abrams
as its new general manager. The network legal correspondent and host of The Abrams Report
will run the day-to-day operation and report to Phil Griffin
, a senior executive at NBC News who also keeps his eye on Today
. The Biz talked to Abrams, son of well-known First Amendment lawyer Floyd Abrams
, about his new job behind the camera.
TVGuide.com: So how was that first day?
Dan Abrams: A lot of phone calls. A lot of interviews. But also a lot of walking around. I'm trying to make it clear that I'm not just a guy that they've seen on TV — and that I'm approachable and ready to take advice from everyone here.
TVGuide.com: Why do you think you got this job? We heard that you were outspoken about what the network should be doing and that you communicated with management about it. But was there any single thing that made your bosses think, "We should give this guy a try?"
Abrams: I think it's a tricky job. You have to know the MSNBC culture. You have to know the NBC culture; you have to walk that line. You also have to be cognizant of what cable news is all about. Cable news and network news are different.
TVGuide.com: What do you think the difference is?
Abrams: Good cable news should be edgier, more immediate and more urgent. Network news is better produced and more thoughtful at times. That doesn't mean cable news is never thoughtful. But I view network news, particularly magazine programs, [as a venue] where they have weeks to work on a piece — you don't have that in cable news. You don't have that luxury. It's going to be edgier. It's going to be grittier.
TVGuide.com: Interesting, because compared to the hosts on other cable networks who do legal shows, you seemed to be a little more thoughtful and restrained — someone reluctant to go through the kind of theatrics that others do.
Abrams: I think some cable news programs are theatrical for the sake of theater. I really did try to stay away from that. You won't see that on MSNBC. With that said, you can still be passionate and energized and excited without acting, without faking indignation. I think that's what many of the hosts on MSNBC do, and I'm going to encourage them to do that.
TVGuide.com: You've been in the trenches there for a while. Why do you think MSNBC shows haven't really taken hold with the audience?
Abrams: There are a lot of reasons. I think that there's been a lot of change at MSNBC. At times there has been change for the sake of change. I think finally now we're seeing Countdown with Keith Olbermann and Hardball with Chris Matthews getting some traction — in part because we stuck with them. I think that's great. Now the question is going to be [about how to familiarize] the audience with what we are. People are asking, "What is MSNBC?" I'm hoping that people will say that it's the really exciting, vibrant, sometimes irreverent network that makes news interesting.
TVGuide.com: Where do you stand on changing the name?Abrams: It's not a priority. It's not that it's been ruled out, but as of right now, I don't view that as a priority.
TVGuide.com: You're keeping your job as NBC's legal correspondent. Phil Griffin is keeping his job overseeing the Today show. One might think that turning MSNBC over to internal people with other responsibilities suggests that something bigger is ahead....
Abrams: It's just not the case. I wanted to keep the chief-legal-correspondent title so that on occasion, on the big legal stories, I can provide the same analysis I've provided on Dateline and Today for more than 10 years. But that's not going to be taking much of my time. I'm not going to be covering stories for the network. This is my job. The fact that Phil Griffin was assigned as the oversight guy — he's the guru. He oversees MSNBC and the Today show. He's not here on a daily basis. It's really an effort to keep the MSNBC brand within NBC News — to make sure there is a direct line.... I think it sends a message that MSNBC is important to NBC News. I actually think it's the opposite of what you're asking. I think it's a statement of support, rather than one of concern.
TVGuide.com: One thing we've heard is that the channel could rely more on taped programs.
Abrams: Everything is on the table. I'm not ruling anything out.
TVGuide.com: What do you think has been missing on MSNBC? What's the first thing you want to address?
Abrams: The day I moved into this job, this network improved because I came off the air. I'm kidding! I don't want to get specific because I need more time to settle in. With that said, expect to see us building on some of the things that worked here in the very near future. Countdown and Hardball have worked well, and we have great talent on the rest of the prime-time schedule.
TVGuide.com: So more shows with distinct personalities?
Abrams: I hope throughout the network that there will be a better sense of our identity — a better sense of the identity of the hosts and our network.... We often cover very serious stories, and those stories need to be covered with the utmost seriousness. With that said, I have said to [management] that sometimes we take ourselves too seriously, and maybe that ought to change.