MSNBC Leans On Spike Lee

RELATED: Maddow: Network News Not Going Anywhere

MSNBC is moving forward with its “Lean Forward” image campaign. A new round of documentary-style promos, directed by filmmaker Spike Lee and featuring MSNBC primetime hosts expressing their opinions on key issues they examine on their shows, begins airing today.

Rachel Maddow, Chris Matthews, Lawrence O’Donnell and Ed Schultz are shown outside the studio and in locations that are meaningful to them. Maddow is in front of Hoover Dam, as an example of the kind of ambitious project the country can embrace, rather than austerity.

MSNBC President Phil Griffin says “Lean Forward” expresses a progressive, positive sensibility and a desire to work toward making America a better place. “This isn’t just a marketing tagline,” Griffin says. “It’s the way we want to approach how we do our job every day.”

It’s also the sort of marketing a channel can do when it’s gotten some ratings traction, he says. MSNBC is now the No. 2 news network behind Fox News Channel, ahead of CNN. “We’re finally part of the culture and people are aware of what we’re doing,” Griffin says, adding that the campaign’s first wave helped boost ratings and improve other measures of brand health.

Absent from the campaign is Keith Olbermann, once the network’s most prominent progressive anchor. Since Olbermann left in January, “we haven’t skipped a beat,” Griffin said. “Our success speaks for itself.”

Unlike the first ads, which showed the hosts at work, the new ads show “what they believe,” says Sharon Otterman, the network’s chief marketing officer. The ads are designed to build host connections with the audience.

Taking its on-air talent out of the studio and allowing them to express opinions is a departure from traditional news marketing, but Griffin says MSNBC primetime shows are about deep analysis from a point of view that’s clear from host to host. “We know that people, especially news junkies, get their information all day long on the Web and their mobile devices,” he says. Unlike Fox, which “takes a single point of view,” Griffin says, “we’re progressive, but welcome many more voices.”

Otterman says that the new ads will air first on MSNBC, then appear on other NBCU channels, getting a heavy rotation in June. MSNBC has also bought space in arty movie theaters, on radio and online.

Schultz filmed his spots in his hometown of Norfolk, Va. In one spot, he talks about how Wall Street is going through the roof while Main Street pays the bills.

“Going back to my roots and explaining what I believe in and what I advocate for I thought would be a good start with a lot of people that were just tuning into the show,” Schultz says.

Schultz enjoyed working with Lee, who is a fan of the network. “I knew what subjects were near and dear to me, and then he suggested different angles and locations,” Schultz says. “He emotionally dove into the project. I appreciated his intensity.”

How different was this promo shoot from others he’s done? “Quite honestly, I’ve never had a network pay this much attention to me,” Schultz says.

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Jon Lafayette

Jon has been business editor of Broadcasting+Cable since 2010. He focuses on revenue-generating activities, including advertising and distribution, as well as executive intrigue and merger and acquisition activity. Just about any story is fair game, if a dollar sign can make its way into the article. Before B+C, Jon covered the industry for TVWeek, Cable World, Electronic Media, Advertising Age and The New York Post. A native New Yorker, Jon is hiding in plain sight in the suburbs of Chicago.