MSNBC Hopes Shuffle Will Help Stem Slide

Aug 8, 2005  •  Post A Comment

MSNBC President Rick Kaplan’s first major schedule change since taking the reins of the network 18 months ago takes effect tonight, and he’s banking on one of the moves being a game changer.

MSNBC has fallen from third to fourth place in the cable news ratings competition since late February. Mr. Kaplan hopes he can improve the Microsoft- and NBC-owned news network’s position by extending its live prime-time lineup through midnight and by inserting former Fox News Channel spark plug Rita Cosby at 9 p.m. starting tonight.

“The Situation With Tucker Carlson” debuted June 13 and quickly settled into fourth place opposite Fox’s “Hannity & Colmes,” CNN’s “Larry King Live” and CNN Headline News’ “Showbiz Tonight.” Now “Tucker Carlson,” which goes for a light skim of newsy subjects, is moving to 11 p.m. (ET), where it will go up against the big guns of late-night in much of the country: Jon Stewart on Comedy Central, Jay Leno on NBC, David Letterman on CBS and “Nightline” on ABC.

“Rita Cosby: Live and Direct” moves in at 9 p.m., where industry insiders said she has the potential to double the ratings for MSNBC’s strongest shows and triple the ratings “Tucker Carlson” has been averaging in the slot.

“She can be a game changer in the same way Nancy Grace has been for CNN Headline,” Mr. Kaplan said. “I like the idea that one show can be a game changer.”

Ms. Cosby said last week to expect a lot of “revealing interviews and investigations” and a “less analytical” tone than found on some shows at her new network. “I tell everybody I’m going to get some sleep next year,” said the headline-hungry Ms. Cosby.

Her first-night guests are Eleanor Cook and Ray Hultman, jurors in the Michael Jackson trial said to have told tales of misconduct among jurors and to have plans to write books about the experience. Mr. Kaplan said Mr. Carlson’s move to late-night is not a sign that Mr. Kaplan has lost faith in “The Situation.”

“I like the show,” Mr. Kaplan said. He added that when he was working to bring aboard Mr. Carlson and Ms. Cosby it was understood that whichever show came together first would go in at 9 p.m., where repeats were filling the hole left in the lineup by the exit of “Inside Edition” anchor Deborah Norville after less than a year of trying to handle two shows a day. Ms. Norville continues to host syndicated newsmagazine “Inside Edition.”

“When we started Tucker there, we knew we were going to move him,” Mr. Kaplan said.

People who merely look at the daunting viewing options at 11 p.m. overlook a few things, he said. “There is not a lot of repeat between our audience and [that of Comedy Central],” he said. What’s more, the West Coast, where “Tucker Carlson” now will play live at 8 p.m., represents 15 percent of the U.S. TV audience and 20 percent of “Tucker Carlson’s” audience, and “There’s a lot of revenue to be made there,” he said. He said that because Mr. Carlson’s show already has a bit of a late-night attitude-“It requires somebody to be good on more than one topic”-it will need no major tweaking for its move.

Mr. Kaplan said the decline in MSNBC viewership-it was down to an average of 280,000 for prime time in July and 204,000 in the “Tucker Carlson” hour-is “not dispiriting. It is incredibly challenging.”