MSNBC has young-demo news beat

Apr 23, 2001  •  Post A Comment

While Fox News Channel and CNN wage a war of headlines over who has the biggest talk-show audience, MSNBC Vice President and General Manager Erik Sorenson quietly reiterates that his network has got the youngest news audience.
“We’re letting Fox and CNN kill each other over 60-plus viewers. It’s going to go 10 rounds,” Mr. Sorenson said. “We’re after the next generation of news viewers.
“Bragging rights are great, and I don’t like looking at the consumer press and seeing the emphasis on [total] viewers. They’re just not part of our strategy.”
MSNBC, based in Secaucus, N.J., turned the corner into profitability late last year.
“Had last year’s pace continued this year, we would have made a gigantic profit this year,” Mr. Sorenson said.
Instead, as everyone well knows, the dot-com dollar disappeared, the ad market collapsed and the economy slowed.
“Even in a down market, we’re making our advertising budgets and we’re making a profit,” the news executive said.
Mr. Sorenson is confident MSNBC will continue to make a profit throughout the year by holding the line instead of discounting commercial inventory.
“Next year will be good for us,” he said, because it will be front-loaded with the Winter Olympics and will wind toward an off-year election that plays to the strengths of the NBC-MSNBC stable that made presidential election coverage a three-way ratings race in November and December while millions fixated on the chads and court battles on which the Florida outcome hinged.
Next year’s election is certain to pale in comparison, but it is equally certain to energize all three cable news networks.
In the meantime, in between the big breaking news stories for which all-news channels pray, MSNBC is casting a wide net for new talent. Two weeks ago, Mr. Sorenson hired Rick Sanchez, a colorful and sometimes controversial anchor from WSVN-TV in Miami, where MSNBC’s interest also has been piqued by Ben Mankiewicz of Barry Diller’s late WAMI-TV.
Mr. Sanchez will start this summer at MSNBC. “We think he’s smart and we think he’s skillful,” Mr. Sorenson said. “This is a place that is like a living acid test.”
After Mr. Sanchez takes that test, Mr. Sorenson will know better how to position him most effectively in a lineup of personalities that includes Don Imus in the morning and Mitch Albom in the afternoon, thanks to simulcasts of their respective radio shows; the oft-parodied Chris Matthews with “Hardball”; and “Barnicle,” as MSNBC has titled the hour that Mike Barnicle earned off his tryout during the network’s coverage of the first 100 days of President Bush’s administration.
In off-peak times, MSNBC fills out the lineup by repackaging “Dateline NBC” stories, by rummaging through NBC’s vast archives for material for “Headliners & Legends,” by commissioning installments of “MSNBC Investigates” and by creating such events as the two “Silicon Summits” at which “Nightly News” anchor Tom Brokaw quizzed a dizzying array of new-technology titans.
While waiting for big news or the advertising logjam to break, MSNBC also earns some money the old-fashioned way: by charging sister network CNBC a license fee for sharing MSNBC’s signature shows “Hardball” and “The News With Brian Williams.”
“Hardball” airs twice a night on each channel. “We make a lot of money off that program,” Mr. Sorenson said. “Cumulatively, `Hardball’ is probably a more profitable program than `[The] O’Reilly [Factor].”’
While Mr. Sorenson thinks “Hardball” is more attractive than CNN or Fox News Channel’s signature programs to advertisers seeking younger, more upscale audiences, at least one advertiser, Merrill Lynch, says its strategy involves buying time in and around the franchise shows on all three all-news networks.
Bill Melnick, director of integrated marketing for Merrill Lynch, said by cherry-picking prime time and “Moneyline” on CNN, “The O’Reilly Factor” and programming around it on Fox and “Hardball” and “Brian Williams” on MSNBC, the brokerage firm feels it gets the surest shot at each channel’s biggest, most loyal and most upscale audiences.
MSNBC’s biggest advantage, Mr. Melnick said, is its ability to integrate its partnerships with CNBC, Newsweek and NBC News “on a platform that is compelling. … To put it in code words: It’s NBC on cable.”
Mr. Sorenson argues that MSNBC is a particularly “efficient” buy because the network’s core audience tends to check in more frequently for short periods and thus boosts the network’s total-viewing base.
The average age of the MSNBC audience in the first quarter was 51, while Fox News Channel viewers’ average age was 56, and CNN’s was 58.
A CNN spokeswoman said, “CNN’s audience is older by a few years, but is also wealthier. In fact, CNN and CNN Headline News reached 41.2 percent of all 25 to 54 U.S. households with incomes of $75,000 or more in January, compared to 28.6 percent for MSNBC and 18.1 percent for Fox.”
Even without stories as dramatic as the Florida election controversy, combined cable news viewership was up 28 percent in the first quarter of 2001 compared with the same period last year. MSNBC’s year-to-year growth in the first quarter was 41 percent in households. (Fox was up 123 percent, and CNN was down 1 percent.) MSNBC was up 31 percent year to year in its key demo of adults 25 to 54. Although Fox was up 123 percent year to year in adults 25 to 54 (CNN was down 10 percent), within that target demo MSNBC has beaten both CNN and Fox in prime time four out of the past five weeks.
But between the news peaks, there are long news days to fill.
Those lulls are “hard on all these brands,” Mr. Sorenson said. “We all fall prey to bloviating-arguing about should we turn China into a parking lot. That argument does not need to or deserve to be on the air 24 hours a day.”