Why MSNBC is demoting Ed Schultz [Updated]

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Ed Schultz fires up the crowd at a live taping of The Ed Show in Columbus, Ohio, in 2011.
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Ed Schultz fires up the crowd at a live taping of The Ed Show in Columbus, Ohio, in 2011.

The Ed Show host says moving to the weekends was his idea. Almost nobody believes him

MSNBC's Ed Schultz had a big scoop on Wednesday night: An interview with Scott Prouty, the previously anonymous Florida bartender who secretly recorded Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney's disparaging comments about 47 percent of Americans. Then, at the end of the show, Schultz announced that, starting in April, his prime-time show would move to the weekends. (Watch below.)

Schultz said the time switch was his idea — "I raised my hand for this assignment for a number of personal and professional reasons," he said. "I'm very proud of the work our team has done here at 8 p.m., but sitting behind this desk five nights a week doesn't cut it for me." Few people are convinced. "Sources at MSNBC told Politico that that was a very generous interpretation of events," says Politico's Dylan Byers. "Schultz was pushed out to make way for new talent, they said."

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Ed Schultz moving to weekends on MSNBC. He was upbeat, but that's not exactly a promotion. Awaiting the backstory.

— HowardKurtz (@HowardKurtz) March 14, 2013

Until we get that backstory, all we have is speculation — and Brian Stelter of The New York Times. Last November, Stelter reported that MSNBC was thinking about replacing Schultz with Washington Post wunderkind blogger Ezra Klein, drawing a furious denial from Schultz. "If somebody is telling Stelter that I'm going to be replaced, we know that his nose as a reporter doesn't sniff very well," he said on his radio show.

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On Wednesday night, Stelter cited his old story, saying Schultz's ouster "has been expected at least since late last year," and repeated that Klein is still the frontrunner for Schultz's spot, along with Chris Hayes and Joy Reid. He doesn't say why Schultz is being pushed out, but in a March 1 profile of Schultz in the Columbia Journalism Review, Stelter tells Michael Meyer: "When MSNBC talks about its brand, it talks about Rachel Maddow and Lawrence O'Donnell and Chris Hayes. It doesn't talk as often about Ed Schultz."

With his bombast and focus on the labor movement, "Schultz is as close to a perennial underdog as you could find," says CJR's Meyer. But "one area where even Schultz can't cast himself as underdog, for the moment at least, is ratings."

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After briefly moving from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. in the primetime reshuffling that followed Keith Olbermann's parting ways with MSNBC in 2011, The Ed Show finally settled in at 8 p.m., and went on to have an impressive year in 2012. The "fat, red-headed guy from Fargo," as Schultz refers to himself, handily beat the more camera-friendly Anderson Cooper in that timeslot. And while it seems no one ever will top Fox's Bill O'Reilly, Schultz earned MSNBC its best 8 p.m. ratings among the coveted 25-to-54 demographic since 2009. [CJR]

"The change may be one of tone rather than numbers," say Anjali Sareen and Jack Mirkinson at The Huffington Post. This is "a clear demotion" for Schultz — "the 8 p.m. cable news slot is one of the biggest prizes in prime time," and the weekend is "simply a less prestigious time period" — but it probably says more about MSNBC than Schultz.

His barnstorming, Midwestern, labor-friendly brand of populist liberalism has come to look more and more at odds with the increasingly elite and wonkish tone taking hold on the rest of MSNBC. The network has spent its last year grooming hosts like Chris Hayes, Melissa Harris-Perry, and Ezra Klein, all of whom bring a far different approach to their work than Schultz. [Huffington Post]

"It's arguable that, just as the Democrats viewed Schultz as the right man for the job during the heart of the Bush years, MSNBC is beginning to view others as a better fit in the age of Obama," says CJR's Meyer.

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Schultz's bombast, which resembles the Fox News style of the 2000s, was once the hallmark of opinionated cable news. But now, perhaps, MSNBC sees a different way forward, and is building a lineup in the sober, technocrat image of the current administration. [CJR]

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Update: Chris Hayes has been picked as Schultz's successor at 8 p.m.

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