For MSNBC, Time to Get Political
Monday, November 20, 2006
MSNBC has seen the future, and it is politics.
Delivered with plenty of opinion.
Preferably with lots of cameo appearances by big-name news stars from the mothership.
The perennial third-place cable news channel enjoyed a nice bump in the ratings during the midterm campaign, in part because the likes of Brian Williams, Tim Russert, David Gregory and Campbell Brown broke away from their NBC duties to help out.
"We've found a voice as of late, and a large part of that voice is politics," says MSNBC General Manager Dan Abrams. And although he doesn't plan to put on "all politics all the time until 2008," Abrams says he wants to continue "branding" MSNBC as a haven for political junkies.
Of course, MSNBC has done well in other campaigns, only to have the gains vanish after Election Day. All of cable news tends to get big spikes during major stories -- war, scandal, missing white women -- that fade when the news cycle moves on.
"The chronic problem -- and it will likely happen again in the days ahead -- is a big drop-off back to unpleasant, distant-third reality," says Erik Sorenson, a former MSNBC president.
There's no plan to transform the channel into an extended version of Chris Matthews's "Hardball," but MSNBC covered the House leadership shootout between Jack Murtha and Steny Hoyer with presidential-campaign intensity.
During the midterm campaign's stretch run, Abrams devoted two full days to politics and persuaded some of NBC's heavyweights to anchor hour-long programs. In October, MSNBC's ratings were up 14 percent over a year earlier, while Fox News was down 17 percent and CNN was down 8 percent. Of course, the NBC channel started from a much lower base. Fox averaged 792,000 viewers for the month, CNN 491,000 and MSNBC 287,000. (CNN scored a rare ratings win between 7 p.m. and 2 a.m. on election night, drawing 2.54 million viewers to Fox's 2.39 million and MSNBC's 1.58 million.)
NBC hotshots once looked down their noses at their cable sibling. But Andrea Mitchell, the network's chief foreign affairs correspondent, who made frequent MSNBC appearances during the campaign, is now anchoring an hour most mornings at 11. Although the cable audience is far smaller, "you would not believe the kind of reaction I've had from people I really respect," Mitchell says. As for potential guests, "many people want to do live interviews as opposed to edited interviews where they'll be a 15-second sound bite."
Mitchell also sees a certain synergy, such as when she was interviewing an Iraq expert last week on MSNBC and gleaned information for a piece she was preparing on the subject for NBC's "Today" show.
The network feasted on last week's Democratic infighting, from Matthews's midday appearances to a steady stream of analysts, including Newsweek's Jonathan Alter and Howard Fineman and The Washington Post's Dana Milbank. (The two Post-owned publications share a news alliance with MSNBC.) By contrast with its rivals, MSNBC essentially ignored the controversy over O.J. Simpson's maybe-I-did-it television special and the search for a missing 2-year-old in Florida, and provided modest coverage of a deadly tornado in North Carolina.