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Editorial: MSNBC Needs to Get On Course

Jul 14, 2003  •  Post A Comment

The sudden axing of extremist talk-show host Michael Savage last week by MSNBC should come as a surprise to no one. It was the almost inevitable outcome of what appeared from the start to be a misguided strategy on the part of the network.
Mr. Savage has since apologized for his remarks about gays, but even that rings hollow. He was hired because he has stirred controversy in the past on his radio show, where he was well known for his venomous diatribes against gays, women and other groups.
MSNBC must have known what it was in for with Mr. Savage, but that did not stop the cable network from making the mistake. Struggling to compete with CNN and apparently motivated by the recent ratings surge enjoyed by Fox News Channel, MSNBC made the decision earlier this year to add a number of new shows and personalities in an attempt to court the conservative audience so loyal to Fox. To that end, MSNBC added not only Mr. Savage but also former Congressman Joe Scarborough and a few others to its lineup. One of those tapped by the network, former wrestler and Minnesota Governor Jesse Ventura, has not yet made it onto the air, as the host and the network have continued to search for a format that will work.
MSNBC’s shift to the right, as far as it went, was always a questionable strategy. It appeared to be based not on real conviction, nor on passion for a certain position, but simply to chase an audience that was flocking to its arch-competitor. Predictably, the moves failed to produce any measurable ratings improvement-even with the attention, most of it negative, garnered by Mr. Savage.
Whether MSNBC will learn from its mistake is anybody’s guess. But it seems obvious-as it was even before the Michael Savage meltdown-that the NBC corporate family could be doing a better job of bringing along MSNBC. If it ever hopes to elevate the cable channel to the high standards of professionalism and ratings success that define the company’s other news branches, the smart move would be to abandon the silly copycat strategy and take the high ground, bringing into play the formidable assets of NBC News and CNBC to help build MSNBC into a serious contender in cable news.
During the war with Iraq, MSNBC did see a ratings surge, because it did what it does best. It provided a backup to and an expansion of the fine work done by NBC News. It was a place for objective, in-depth, round-the-clock news coverage.
NBC forged its way to the top among broadcast networks by leading and innovating, not by copying the formulas of other networks. The NBC family’s credits include the leading prime-time news show, the leading Sunday newsmaker show and the leading cable business channel in CNBC.
It’s high time the company applied the kind of thinking that has made it a leader in every other news arena to bring similar success to MSNBC. The NBC family needs to use its leadership position and its solid news operations to help strengthen the one weak link in the NBC news chain.