Lawrence ODonnell, host of MSNBCs The Last Word, has just four weeks left in his contract, and the cable network does not appear to be interested in renewing his deal. Four well-placed sources tell HuffPost that MSNBC has not been in contact with ODonnells team of representatives to negotiate a new deal.
The absence of active negotiations weeks before a contract expires is highly unusual and often a sign that a contract wont be renewed. News networks normally dont risk letting the contract of a host who has a highly rated program expire or even come close to expiring before renegotiating. A short time-frame puts the network at a strategic disadvantage in talks, thats why cable networks often start negotiating renewals six to nine months in advance of a contract ending.
A spokesman for NBC News declined to comment on ongoing negotiations. Although, multiple sources from inside and outside the network have told HuffPost that no negotiations have taken place.
ODonnell, who has been appearing on the network since its inception, has hosted his highly rated program since the fall of 2010. The Last Word is the cable networks second-highest rated program, according to Nielsen figures, behind only The Rachel Maddow Show.
ODonnell has even been, on some nights, besting Sean Hannitys program on Fox News among viewers ages 18 to 49, the demographic that television advertisers care about the most.
If ODonnells contract is not renewed, that would not come as a surprise to many network insiders. Andy Lack, the chairman of NBC News, is no fan of ODonnells program, sources say. Some say its because he doesnt appreciate the liberal nature of The Last Word, but others say its about the fact that ODonnell rejected Lacks request to move his program from 10 p.m. to 6 p.m.Eastern time. This decision was ODonnells prerogative, two sources said, because his contract stipulates that his program must air in prime time.
ODonnells refusal to move his program could have led Lack, who is known to bristle at dissent, to sour on ODonnell, sources said. A senior NBC News executive disagreed with the idea that Lack isnt a fan of ODonnells show saying, He is proud of and enthusiastic about all the work thats being done across all of MSNBCs primetime slate, including Lawrences program.
There does appear to be some evidence of Lacks distaste. ODonnell has not had a face-to-face meeting with him since Lack returned to the network in 2015 after stints at Sony Music and Bloomberg Television, two sources said.
A senior NBC news executive said that Lack doesnt take a heavy-handed approach with the cable networks on-air talent and that frequent face-to-face meetings are often a sign that he isnt satisfied. Sources familiar with the production of The Last Word say that Lack doesnt interfere with the programs editorial direction.And in Lacks previous stint as NBC News president he was the one that pushed for ODonnell to appear on the then nascent cable MSNBC network when it was founded in 1996.
Lacks programming decisions and leadership style have caused tension internally at MSNBC leading staff members and on-air talent to express their displeasure internally and externally. For this story, HuffPost spoke to more than 10 sources inside and outside the network who asked to remain anonymous because they are not authorized to speak publicly about network business.
If ODonnells contract is not renewed, the news would certainly be welcome to PresidentDonald Trump, who has had a long-running feud with ODonnell.
In 2011, ODonnell called on NBC to fire Trump, then the host and executive producer of The Celebrity Apprentice, for pushing his racist and inaccurate birther conspiracy against PresidentBarack Obama. In 2015, he also claimed that Trump was lying about his wealth. Trump threatened to sue ODonnell for making false statements but never followed through on his threat (which ODonnell had predicted).
According to three sources, Trump has pressured MSNBC President Phil Griffin to fire ODonnell on multiple occasions. Griffin alluded to Trumps push for ODonnells ouster in an interview with the Hollywood Reporter last month, saying, [Trump] started calling me all the time in 2011 to say Lawrence ODonnell was a third-rate anchor. Griffin and ODonnell enjoy a cordial relationship but Griffins power as the President of MSNBC has been diminished by Lack since he returned in 2015. As a result, Lack will be the one to decide whether ODonnell stays and under what terms.
There is a fear, among some at MSNBC, that Lack is making programming decisions in an effort to appease the Trump administration (an accusation that has been made of CNN and Fox News), which may lead to more access to the White House and in turn, conservative viewers.
A senior NBC News executive pushed back on this claim. Is he bringing in more voices from all over the political spectrum? Yes. But thats to make better programming and more informed analysis. We dont do things to appease people in power. We hold them accountable.
If MSNBC failed to renew ODonnells contract, it would be unprecedented, given his high ratings.
Its unclear who would replace ODonnell if MSNBC declines to renew his contract. Multiple sources have told HuffPost that Brian Williams, whose program, The 11th Hour, is on MSNBC at 11 p.m.Eastern, has been eager to have an earlier start in the evening schedule.
If MSNBC failed to renew ODonnells contract, it would be unprecedented, given his high ratings, but multiple sources tell HuffPost that Lack attributes ODonnells high-ratings to heightened interest in Trump and the fact that his programs lead-in is the top-rated Rachel Maddow show, and doesnt credit ODonnells star power and fan base for the high-ratings. Despite this, Lack is said to dislike when people attribute his cable networks blockbuster ratings to Trump: He believes, according to multiple sources, that the high ratings are largely a product of his programming decisions.
A senior NBC News executive disputes both of these characterizations saying that Lack believes ratings success is more nuanced than attributing it to one or two factors. He considers prime time to be the op-ed section of the cable news network, and believes MSNBC is on top right now because it has the smartest, most insightful and most dynamic opinion hosts in the business, the executive said.
ODonnell is not giving up on what appears to be his quest to stay at MSNBC. On May 3, he tweeted about The Last Word program beating Hannity in the ratings. We need audience support now more than ever, ODonnell replied. So thanks again.
Friday night, he sent another Twitter message about his rankings. Last night @maddow was #1 rated show in all of cable tv, not just cable news. @TheLastWord was #2, he wrote. Thanks for your support. We need it.