Abrams Defends Missile Coverage

Jul 10, 2006  •  Post A Comment

When North Korea launched missiles last week, CNN and Fox News Channel ran live coverage of the tense international story. MSNBC, under new General Manager Dan Abrams, stuck to its menu of taped documentaries.

News junkies, bloggers and even gossip columnist Liz Smith questioned Mr. Abrams’ decision to limit MSNBC’s coverage of the missile crisis to a late afternoon simulcast of an NBC News special report by Ann Curry and hourly cut-ins.

Sticking with documentaries didn’t help lift MSNBC from its distant third-place ranking behind Fox News and CNN. On the other hand, in the demographic that most directly influences advertising prices-viewers 25 to 54-MSNBC didn’t experience a precipitous drop from its prime-time average in the second quarter of this year.

Mr. Abrams, who last month was elevated to general manager after years as host MSNBC’s “The Abrams Report” legal show, said the missile story didn’t meet the threshold for wall-to-wall coverage at the network.

“I am in no way suggesting that this story is not a serious, important story,” Mr. Abrams said in an interview with TelevisionWeek. “This is an important story. The only question was how much do we cover it.”

MSNBC isn’t abandoning its news mission, he said.

“We are going to continue to be the source for the most important stories of the day,” he said. “Does that mean that every time there is a big story we are going to air six hours of live programming around it? Not necessarily.”

How to Stand Out

Mr. Abrams, who last month took over MSNBC’s news operation from Rick Kaplan, is trying to find ways to distinguish his network from its competitors. Part of that process included spending several hours in the control room July 1, experimenting with a camera. The idea is to open to the viewers the process of making a news program.

Mr. Abrams plans to use shots of the control room during broadcasts and make viewers privy to the conversations between anchors and producers, he said.

“It’s urgent. It’s not fake. It’s real,” Mr. Abrams said. “In the control room, there is often some degree of chaos. The viewer should see more of the process.”

MSBNC will debut Mr. Abrams’ experiment with transparency as soon as the network is comfortable with the presentation, he said.

“We’re trying it out a little bit here and a little bit there,” Mr. Abrams said. “Expect to see more of it in the days and weeks to come.”

Mr. Abrams faces a difficult task in lifting MSNBC’s ratings, given Fox News’ lock on audiences that want opinionated analysis and CNN’s strength in breaking news coverage. Its decision to run documentaries last week during the Korean missile story may have cost MSNBC an opportunity to win viewers.

The July 4 experience of CNN, which normally places behind Fox News, is a reminder that the missile story was a chance to pull in viewers. CNN’s full-court press coverage put it at the front of the ratings among 25- to 54-year-old viewers that night.

As usual, MSNBC finished a distant third among the 25- to 54-year-old audiences that largely determine advertising prices for cable news channels. On July 4, the last day of a long summer holiday weekend, Mr. Abrams’ network averaged 122,000 viewers, about 7.6 percent lower than its average prime-time performance for the second quarter in the 25 to 54 demographic, according to data from Nielsen Media Research.

Mr. Abrams said he hopes that in the near future, a big story that breaks at 4 p.m. will be complemented by related taped programming later that night.

“We are committed to making documentary programming part of our schedule,” he said. “I am hoping that the totality of the changes we make will allow people to recognize MSNBC is not a clone of Fox or CNN, that we are doing something different.”