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MSNBC, Promoting From the Bottom Up

By Lisa de Moraes
Tuesday, June 13, 2006

The anchor of one of MSNBC's lower-rated shows has been put in charge of day-to-day operation of the ratings-starved cable news network.

On the other hand, Dan Abrams gives great e-mail.

Abrams, son of high-profile First Amendment lawyer Floyd Abrams, was named general manager of the NBC-owned cable network yesterday.

He will report to Phil Griffin, who was named executive in charge of MSNBC.

Griffin will continue to oversee NBC's "Today" show, as he has done for a little more than a year.

The new team replaces Rick Kaplan, who last week stepped down as president of MSNBC.

Kaplan had reported directly to NBC News President Steve Capus, who said yesterday they were very fortunate that Griffin, an MSNBC alum who most recently had been in charge of its prime time, would reassume a leadership position. Capus also acknowledged that putting Abrams in charge of day-to-day operations was a bit unorthodox.

But, Capus noted, so was naming NBC sports producer Jim Bell executive producer of "Today" in April '05. Except that Bell had at least some producing credits. Among other things, he was coordinating producer for NBC's Olympics coverage, responsible for all aspects of nearly 100 hours of afternoon and late-night Olympic programming during the 2004 Athens Summer Games, producer for NBC's broadcasts of the NFL, MLB and NBA, the French Open and Wimbledon. You know -- he'd run things.

Ah, but Abrams told The TV Column, he's run "The Abrams Report."

"I have been running my show for the last 4 1/2 years with a staff of 15 people and dealing with many of the same issues I'll be dealing with on a grander scale running the network," Abrams told The TV Column.

And how's that been going? Let's look at May, shall we? At 4 p.m. "The Abrams Report" clocked 211,000 viewers, while Wolf Blitzer's "The Situation Room" on CNN averaged nearly 500,000 viewers and Fox News Channel's "Your World With Neil Cavuto" averaged nearly 800,000.

At 6 p.m., "The Abrams Report" averaged 253,000 viewers, to Lou Dobbs's 813,000 on CNN and Brit Hume's 1.2 million viewers on FNC.

Asked what has been his biggest frustration running "The Abrams Report," Abrams said, "The 6 o'clock time period has always been a very tough time period for that program." The earlier show "has been picking up quite a bit as of late. . . . We're actually getting some traction at 4."

Still, Griffin insists Abrams is the perfect person for the job -- as opposed to, say, someone who has run one of MSNBC's more successful shows, such as "Hardball With Chris Matthews" or "Countdown With Keith Olbermann" (both averaged nearly 400,000 viewers between 7 and 9 p.m. in May) -- because Abrams, who has been with the network since '97 and anchor of "The Abrams Report" since '01, is the ultimate "insider."

"He's always been an insider," said Griffin.

"He's a lawyer and he understands things. He is a quick study; he's always at the front when there's a big legal story: How do we cover it? Who do we send? What are the main issues?"

Kaplan, who lasted little more than two years and left with six months on his contract, was an outsider, hailing mostly from CNN and ABC News.

Capus, Griffin and Abrams have known each other a long time in TV news years. Back in the late '90s and early '00s, Capus was executive producer of MSNBC's prime-time newscast, "The News With Brian Williams," and before that he was the senior broadcast producer for MSNBC's daytime news coverage, beginning with its launch in 1996.

When Capus was named president of NBC News about a year ago, Abrams started sending him e-mails about the state of MSNBC. One of them ran eight pages, according to the Associated Press.

"One particular note was a rather lengthy overview of all of cable news and what the competitors were doing that was smart and what we were doing that was good, bad and otherwise," Capus told The TV Column. "He's brought any number of insights. . . . He's a very competitive guy."

Abrams, who will step down from his show but continue to be NBC News's chief legal correspondent, said he wants to make MSNBC more "vibrant," more "exciting" and "maybe even a bit more irreverent."

"I think newscasts tend to be very predictable, and I hope we can lose some of that predictability," he told The TV Column.

They certainly lost a bit yesterday.

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