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MSNBC's Extreme Makeover

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Call it one hell of a shot across the cable news bow. In the span of just 24-hours MSNBC has made it perfectly clear exactly what kind of network it wants to be. The outraged populist with the combative tone, force-of-nature personality and tendency to let his constantly running mouth get him into trouble is gone. In his place will now be a cerebral, wonkish, self-described facts-and-figures nerd who couldn't fit the traditional conservative cliché of an elitist left-wing weenie more if he wore a bow tie and had pure New England ivy growing out of his ass. Both are liberals, but the kind of liberals they are -- at least in presentation and tenor -- are light years apart. And MSNBC has chosen not only which person it wants but what message it wants to send in its highest-profile spot, cementing a line-up that officially marks the self-coronation of the network as an unapologetically intellectual powerhouse of liberal politics, for better or for worse.

I've never been a big fan of Ed Schultz. Anyone who's read me for a while or listened to the weekly podcast I do with Bob Cesca knows this. I'm not into silly, bellicose posturing that offers no real insight and which relies almost entirely on the personality of the host delivering the information rather than the quality of the information itself. MSNBC's decision to banish Schultz to weekends 5-7pm is a good one, as far as I'm concerned, and one that's long overdue. (It's not even worth entertaining the bullshit spin that Schultz himself requested the move; he's going to the cable news equivalent of Siberia and no sane person wants to jettison the top stop at the network for that.)

While I respect Schultz's fervor and certainly don't doubt the sincerity of his convictions, he was bringing nothing to the table at the coveted 8pm weeknights spot in terms of either content or ratings. The pro-union, blue-collar firebreather routine served only as a mirror image of MS's direct competition at that hour, Bill O'Reilly, a guy who pours the same shtick on thick from the other side of the political spectrum and regularly brings in nearly three times the number of viewers. Phil Griffin could've kept The Ed Show in place and let that time slot tread water well into the foreseeable future, but to his credit he made an unambiguous and ballsy choice as to who would be the new face of the network in its prime time linchpin spot: Chris Hayes.

Hayes has made a nice little name for himself not only filling in for the not-so-dearly departed Keith Olbermann and MSNBC's smartest asset, Rachel Maddow, but also hosting his weekend wonk-fest, Up with Chris Hayes. Don't expect the current Hayes format you see on weekends to move with him to 8pm weeknights; the lengthy panel debates and Mariana Trench-deep analysis won't play at that hour. This isn't to say that Hayes won't still be expected to be everything he's been up until now -- a profoundly intelligent student of national politics who prefers book-smarts to bombast -- but his new show will almost certainly be streamlined and focused to a scalpel's edge. Yes, there's no denying that MSNBC is purposely counter-programming Fox with a choice like Hayes at 8pm, but the show still has to be, for lack of a better term, ready for prime time.

I'm not sure how Hayes will play at his new hour. My first instinct is to say that while Ed Schultz certainly didn't have the right kind of disposition overall to carry the 8pm time slot there's something to be said for putting a strong personality in place at the start of prime time. Olbermann was a monumental pain-in-the-ass, a cloud that hung over the newsroom so toxic it simply couldn't be allowed to continue polluting everything around it, but there was no doubt about his skills as a broadcaster: he was brilliant. While his personal issues caused him to go wildly off the rails into a swampland of pure obnoxious self-indulgence every time he felt his brilliance wasn't being appropriately deferred to by management, he had the unique ability to strike exactly the right tone between erudite and indignant. He was definitely a pompous ass, but he was a talented pompous ass.

But if Phil Griffin's decision to put Hayes in place at 8pm is any indication, there's a chance that even if Olbermann had been Employee-of-the-Month ten months in a row he still might not have survived the overhaul that's now moving MSNBC to an academic, data-driven, and most of all sober-and-sophisticated outlet for progressive-minded news. The prime time lineup of Hayes, Maddow and O'Donnell is almost sure to eschew sound and fury at every turn, making it, again, the ultimate counter-programming to Fox News. What's more, Fox's personality-driven, largely reality-free prime time may wind up finding fierce competition in a set of hosts, particularly at eight and nine, who are unwavering in their dedication to backing up their arguments with unassailable facts.

In some ways it's a hell of a gamble Phil Griffin and MSNBC are taking by deciding that this is what they want to be in prime time. If it pays off, the result will be a seismic shift in the cable news landscape. Only time will tell.