MSNBC Must Prosper … or Perish?

Jun 12, 2006  •  Post A Comment

Word should come down early this week about new leadership for MSNBC, which last week abruptly lost its president, Rick Kaplan, about six months before his contract was due to expire.

In his 21/2-year tenure, Mr. Kaplan was unable to lift the NBC Universal-owned news channel out of third place in the cable news competition. However, the personality-driven “Countdown With Keith Olbermann,” whose host fanned a public feud with Fox News Channel star Bill O’Reilly, and “Hardball With Chris Matthews,” whose host is the adrenaline-fueled voice of politics for MSNBC, have made some significant inroads in recent months against CNN among key 25- to 54-year-old news viewers.

The 24/7 news business is “a personality-driven programming format,” said Erica Gruen, a principal in the consultancy firm Quantum Media. “Your success depends completely on capturing great personalities, and they do have some, which might suggest that there are enough strengths in the prime-time lineup to provide some measure of success.

“The reason it’s become so personality-driven is because the news has been squished out of it. Everybody gets the news, everybody knows what the news is, so it’s really a matter of who can shout louder and have more of an edge,” Ms. Gruen said.

But she believes that with Fox News Channel routinely drawing at least twice the viewers of second-place CNN, and MSNBC still deeply mired in third, it may become impossible to avoid the question of whether there is room for a third 24-hour news channel.

“It’s diminishing returns as an entertainment medium, and there’s no value as a news medium,” Ms. Gruen said.

NBC Universal took control of MSNBC in December 2005 from founding 50-50 partner Microsoft Corp. and secured the option to acquire 100 percent of the cable channel within two years.

NBC News President Steve Capus said at the time that MSNBC “is a critical component of NBC News’ success.”

In his message to the MSNBC staff after Mr. Kaplan’s exit last week, Mr. Capus said: “The channel has some real momentum behind it now-and we intend to build upon that foundation.”

The network will mark its 10th anniversary in July.