Abrams Ascends on Net’s Upswing

Jun 19, 2006  •  Post A Comment

The promotion of MSNBC on-air legal pundit Dan Abrams to become general manager of the network surprised many who know him-but not all.

Mr. Abrams is competitive; so competitive that his close friend and Hamptons housemate, Men’s Health Editor David Zinczenko-known to those who chronicle New York’s nightlife as Mr. Abrams’ wingman since the end of his engagement to “Law & Order” alumna Elisabeth Rohm-said simply, “I’ve never known him to fail at anything.”

Mr. Abrams beat testicular cancer, which was diagnosed in July 2003, and says now, “I am in better shape than ever.”

He acknowledges his promotion has prompted “head-scratching at every level, from people I know and care about to people who don’t like me.”

He speaks with a directness that comes from knowing his way around MSNBC as few do. The Duke University and Columbia University grad joined the network in 1997 as a general assignment correspondent after having reported and anchored for Court TV. His father is the famed First Amendment lawyer Floyd Abrams.

“For years I have thought about changes I thought could help MSNBC,” Mr. Abrams said. Last year, he began putting his thoughts into often lengthy e-mails to NBC News President Steve Capus.

Mr. Capus also served time at MSNBC and understands the baffling and elusive nature of success in cable news. As executive producer of “The News With Brian Williams,” he was never able to build an audience for the well-regarded anchor.

Glimmers of Hope

MSNBC has been tinkered with relentlessly since NBC and Microsoft launched it as equal partners planning to capitalize on the convergence of TV and the Internet. Microsoft remains a partner on MSNBC.com, but NBC has assumed control of the troubled network.

There have been glimmers of ratings hope at MSNBC in recent months, especially in the evening, where the most money can be made. Led by “Countdown With Keith Olbermann” and “Hardball With Chris Matthews,” MSNBC’s season-to-date prime-time total viewership is up 14 percent year over year, and its performance in the news age group of 25- to 54-year-old viewers is up 23 percent, according to data from Nielsen Media Research.

MSNBC still has a much smaller audience than second-place CNN and ratings leader Fox News Channel, but both of those channels this year have lost audiences among all viewers and younger audiences.

Abrams’ prospects at the network have been buoyed by ratings of his show.

“The Abrams Report,” which launched in December 2001 to cover legal issues and crime stories, is up in both categories year-to-date in its 4 p.m. and 6 p.m. time slots.

On June 7, Rick Kaplan, a longtime network news producer and once president of CNN’s U.S. operations, left his position as president and general manager of MSNBC with six months to go on his contract.

A ratings upswing is a good time to change captains, Mr. Capus says.

Last week Mr. Abrams was named general manager, reporting to Phil Griffin, former VP of MSNBC prime time and now the executive in charge of MSNBC and NBC’s “Today” show.

“I’m comfortable saying I intend to be running this network and that Phil is going to be a regular guru type whom I will turn to probably more early on, for advice, for counsel and for suggestions,” said Mr. Abrams.

He’s likely to be looking at it more often as he immerses himself in his new job, which is likely to cut into his time for hanging out at the hip Pastis in Manhattan or in the Hamptons.

He will continue to do double duty as NBC News’ chief legal correspondent, but the show that continues to bear his name has been turned over to substitute hosts. Mr. Abrams already is working to praise the MSNBC stable of talent, even the “testy characters.”

“I know what it’s like to be on the air,” he said. “I know what drives a lot of people to go on the air. I wouldn’t have taken this job unless I felt I could deal with a wide variety of personalities. I really do have a lot of respect for all of the people who are on the air. I’m telling you that part of what I have told some of them is why I think their show is better than mine.”

Visible changes at MSNBC are said to be a few weeks away. However, Mr. Capus and Mr. Abrams say MSNBC will not become a crime channel. “That’s not part of the plan,” Mr. Capus said.

Dan Abrams

Date of birth: May 20, 1966

Place of birth: New York

Who knew? “Daniel has always had an extraordinary sense of fairness,” said his father, famed First Amendment lawyer Floyd Abrams. The elder Abrams recently came across a report card from his son’s sixth-grade teacher, who wrote that Dan “was deeply involved with fairness. When someone in his class wasn’t being treated right, he objected.”