Kaplan Sets His Sights on Firing Up MSNBC

Feb 23, 2004  •  Post A Comment

When Rick Kaplan gets a call on his cellphone, he hears the opening bars from Iron Butterfly’s ’60s hit “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida.” “When my phone rings, I know it’s my phone,” he said.
Last week it was Mr. Kaplan whose name was ringing throughout the cable news business after he was named the new head of MSNBC. The veteran news executive moved quickly to quiet concerns within MSNBC that he had been hired to make wholesale changes.
Instead, Mr. Kaplan said his job is to fulfill MSNBC’s original mission to attract younger viewers. It is a mission he believes is already well under way, even if progress has been slower than originally anticipated. The network has been criticized for not having a clear vision of what it was and where it was going.
“We clearly have an opportunity here, and you can see it in the way the ratings are kind of moving in an iceberg-like way, but we’re still moving in the right direction,” Mr. Kaplan said.
MSNBC was founded in July 1996 as a joint venture between NBC News and Microsoft. It was conceived as the place to go for a hip, wired and plugged-in younger generation of TV news consumers and as a venue in which NBC News could amortize its network news programming costs by replaying and repackaging video and personalities.
The network is reportedly in the black but has been frustrated by placing no better than third among cable news networks, behind CNN and ratings leader Fox News. Even a small increase in viewership, by a mere 1,000 viewers over a year, could boost annual advertising revenues by as much as $100 million, according to sources.
Mr. Kaplan’s “no change” mantra suggests he has been promised a relatively free hand in managing the network. That has not always been the case in the past, with NBC executives being known to micromanage both the talent lineup and the network’s direction. This has led to some high-profile blunders, such as the hiring and quick firing of liberal talk show pioneer Phil Donahue, the short tenure of right-wing commentator Michael Savage and the quick cancellation of a show starring former Minnesota Gov. and professional wrestler Jesse Ventura.
Mr. Kaplan said he could not be free to make key decisions with his staff with that kind of interference. He said he is so confident, he did not even demand that those assurances be put in writing.
“There’s such a professional understanding between me and them that it wasn’t necessary to say, `All right, let’s spell out: What will I be able to do? And when will I be able to do it? And how much money will I get?’ We didn’t have to do that because there’s just a lot of mutual respect,” Mr. Kaplan, 56, said last week. “I didn’t feel the need to get those kind of things. If we’re on the right track and doing the right thing, this is NBC and they’re going to do what it takes to win.”
Mr. Kaplan spent 22 years at ABC News, building a reputation as a brilliant, brash and ambitious producer on signature shows such as “Nightline,” “PrimeTime Live” and “World News Tonight.” The 6-foot-7 executive was one of the most visible of the producers shaped by the late ABC News and ABC Sports President Roone Arledge.
Mr. Kaplan left ABC to join CNN. His three years there were contentious. He ran into an old guard that did not want him to succeed in making the cable news channel look more like broadcast news. His tenure was colored by the bungled, and later retracted, “Operation Tailwind” story that charged the United States used nerve gas on American deserters during the Vietnam war. Sweeping changes at CNN in 2000 included his ouster.
It was a more mature and subdued Rick Kaplan who returned to ABC News last year without a long-term contract to oversee coverage of the war on Iraq. ABC named him senior VP in charge of ABC News’ hard news and political programming last June.
“I think he’d tell you he’s not the same guy he once was. We are all changed by our experience and tempered by what we’ve gone through,” said NBC News President Neal Shapiro, who worked for and with Mr. Kaplan at ABC News and who now is Mr. Kaplan’s boss.
Erik Sorenson, who ran MSNBC for five years, was ousted in the transition but is expected to return to NBC news in Manhattan for special assignments that will make use of his background as a news producer and executive and his articulateness.
Mr. Kaplan arrives at a time when MSNBC seems to have the potential to fulfill its stated mission to be a news channel for the next generation.
“It’s clean,” Mr. Kaplan said. “It does good work and it’s got a great network behind it; and if it’s had any problem in the past, it’s been simply that they didn’t stick with the vision, if you will. The vision was too mobile. Erik kind of settled that all down, and now we’re in a position where it’s in a great place to improve it.”
MSNBC has long been able to console itself with having the youngest viewers. In January its median viewer age was 54 for total day and prime-time evening. Fox’s median age was 59 for total day and 61 in prime time. CNN’s median age for total day was 60, and for prime time 63.
Chris Matthews of “Hardball” is the most recognizable face and most resonant voice on MSNBC. “Hardball” is picking up ratings momentum and buzz under new executive producer Tammy Haddad, and the show is running a tight race with CNN’s “Anderson Cooper 360 ‘,” which is leading by 4,000 viewers but lagging by 11,000 in the 25 to 54 demo for February. At the other end of the weeknight lineup is “Scarborough Country,” which grew 47 percent from fourth quarter 2003 to first quarter 2004 in the 25 to 54 demo.
As for “Countdown With Keith Olbermann” and “Deborah Norville Tonight,” the sarcastic Mr. Olbermann suffers in year-to-year comparisons with “Hardball” while the upbeat Ms. Norville’s show launched in late January and has been interrupted for extended presidential election primary coverage anchored by Mr. Matthews.