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MSNBC ready to make its move

May 13, 2002  •  Post A Comment

“There’s a law in broadcasting,” said Jerry Nachman, MSNBC’s new editor in chief. “I’m not allowed to run anything successful. I’m always on these triage missions.”
Mr. Nachman’s professional odyssey has indeed provided a number of daunting challenges in radio, TV, newspapers and most recently the entertainment world. But he’s faced no challenge more formidable than the task that begins Monday when he reports to MSNBC, the increasingly distant underdog in the cable news race that pits the network against Fox News Channel and CNN.
Not for the first time in his colorful career will Mr. Nachman do double duty-this time as editor in chief and host of a weekday show. His mandate is to help MSNBC find an identity that won’t be in crisis between major news events and to find a voice that resonates in the cable news world.
As player and coach, Mr. Nachman (who was this reporter’s editor at the New York Post) expects to be both “exemplar” and “universal donor” to the staff at MSNBC. He said that as the No. 2 executive, he’s expected to play both critic and consigliere to MSNBC President Erik Sorenson.
Mr. Sorenson recently rebranded MSNBC as “America’s NewsChannel,” draped its on-air look in star-spangled red, white and blue graphics, cranked up the on-air shouting matches and described the network as “fiercely independent.” He said the summer will be devoted to launching a new prime-time lineup that includes talk show pioneer Phil Donahue and “re-organizing and re-energizing the daytime programming,” which by June or July will include an hour-long show starring Mr. Nachman in late afternoon or early evening.
“We want him to wrap the day,” said Mr. Sorenson. He sees Mr. Nachman’s hour on-air as “a skeptical, sharp insider’s look at the top four or five stories of the day.
A year from now, if all goes according to Mr. Sorenson’s timetable, there will be “obvious visual success and progress being made here. Or, God forbid, we’re flat in the water and we failed.”
Mr. Sorenson said he’s got the support of NBC (“When NBC management pays attention to the problem, they fix it”) and of the board of Microsoft, a 50-50 partner in MSNBC, which was conceived in 1996 as a convergence of brand extension and amortization of archival and human resources for both companies.
From the beginning, MSNBC relied heavily on repurposed NBC News material in formats that smacked of A&E’s greatest hits (“Headliners & Legends”) or “NBC Nightly News” (“The News With Brian Williams”).
In periods of high national drama and ratings-the 2000 presidential election, for example-the driving question at MSNBC wasn’t “How do we capitalize on the spike in interest?” but “How long before we can return to regular programming?” because the long-form programming attracted younger, more upscale viewers than CNN or Fox News Channel could claim.
Then the advertising slump hit, followed by costly coverage of the Sept. 11 attacks. “Regular programming” became less affordable and less relevant to most viewers. While MSNBC continued to produce original documentaries, the programs were aired for the most part on weekend nights.
“Now one of the main things that viewers use cable news for is a security blanket. They’re tuning in to find out what isn’t happening. Nothing blew up. No airport has been evacuated. No bomb has been found. No one has been killed. No planes are missing. No soldiers have been injured. It’s almost watching to be sure they can make that trip to see grandma this weekend,” said Mr. Sorenson.
His plan is to cater to the group that’s between die-hard news junkies and crisis-only viewers. This middle group is much more interested in news and the debates that are the staple of op-ed pages than it was before Sept. 11.
These “switchables” are “remote-happy. They flip around aggressively,” said Mr. Sorenson. “The issue is, when they flip, are they going to see or hear someone they recognize or like, or are they going to hear or see, in a banner, a topic that intrigues them and hooks them in? That’s where Larry King is attractive. That’s where Phil Donahue is attractive.”
Starting this summer, Mr. Donahue’s show will be telecast live at 8 p.m. (ET). That will make the hour a face-off between the classic liberal on MSNBC, the conservative Bill O’Reilly on Fox News Channel and Connie Chung on CNN, who has already scored significant interviews on the priest sex scandal and is wrangling for permission to originate live from George Lucas’ Skywalker Ranch.
“Donahue” will be followed by “Hardball With Chris Matthews,” a signature show that is no longer shared with CNBC, “On Location With Ashleigh Banfield,” and “Alan Keyes Is Making Sense,” the latter of which had been underperforming what “Headliners & Legends” did in its time slot a year ago. “Alan Keyes” should be less of a drag when it moves to 11 p.m. “The News With Brian Williams” will move to 7 p.m. weeknights when “Donahue” debuts.
This eclectic lineup has inspired an on-air promo that promises: “With so many different points of view, one of them is bound to be yours.”
Fox News steadfastly refuses to comment on MSNBC’s strategy, because it does not acknowledge MSNBC as a competitive factor. The first week of May, Fox’s year-to-year viewership increases ranged from 100 percent in prime time to 140 percent for total day.
Though MSNBC posted increases of 5 percent in prime and 8 percent for total day the same week, Mr. Sorenson said it is CNN on which he is focused. “They’re in the gun sights, and I think they’re vulnerable,” he said.
CNN viewership is up 51 percent in prime time and 86 percent for total day year to year.
Moreover, “MSNBC’s strategy to go more tabloid clearly differentiates CNN from both of our cable news competitors in the eyes of viewers, cable operators and advertisers,” said a spokesperson for CNN.