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MSNBC Rebranding as Liberal News Network

MSNBC is looking to capitalize on the success of Keith Olbermann’s leftist rants by hiring more people like him, including Rosie O’Donnell, Jacques Steinberg reports in today’s NYT.

Riding a ratings wave from “Countdown With Keith Olbermann,” a program that takes strong issue with the Bush administration, MSNBC is increasingly seeking to showcase its nighttime lineup as a welcome haven for viewers of a similar mind.

Lest there be any doubt that the cable channel believes there is ratings gold in shows that criticize the administration with the same vigor with which Fox News’s hosts often champion it, two NBC executives acknowledged yesterday that they were talking to Rosie O’Donnell about a prime-time show on MSNBC.

During the nine months she spent on “The View” before departing abruptly last spring, Ms. O’Donnell raised viewership notably. She did so while lamenting the unabated casualties of the Iraq war and advocating the right to gay marriage, among other positions.

Under one option, Ms. O’Donnell would take the 9 p.m. slot each weeknight on MSNBC, pitting her against “Larry King Live” on CNN and “Hannity & Colmes” on Fox News.

But even without Ms. O’Donnell, MSNBC already presents a three-hour block of nighttime talk — Chris Matthews’s “Hardball” at 7, Mr. Olbermann at 8, and “Live With Dan Abrams” at 9 — in which the White House takes a regular beating. The one early-evening program on MSNBC that is often most sympathetic to the administration, “Tucker” with Tucker Carlson at 6 p.m., is in real danger of being canceled, said one NBC executive, who, like those who spoke of Ms. O’Donnell, would do so only on condition of anonymity.

Having a prime-time lineup that tilts ever more demonstrably to the left could be risky for General Electric, MSNBC’s parent company, which is subject to legislation and regulation far afield of the cable landscape. Officials at MSNBC emphasize that they never set out to create a liberal version of Fox News. “It happened naturally,” Phil Griffin, a senior vice president of NBC News who is the executive in charge of MSNBC, said Friday, referring specifically to the channel’s passion and point of view from 7 to 10 p.m. “There isn’t a dogma we’re putting through. There is a ‘Go for it.’”

One problem that the cable news networks, aside from Fox, have had is a lack of brand identification. NBC has two venues, CNBC and MSNBC, that were supposed to capitalize on the investment NBC was already making in news coverage but have instead been a hodgepodge of talk and business programming, mostly using unproven celebrities as hosts. It probably makes sense to concentrate their energy on being a place where die-hard lefties can go to have their views reinforced than to be all over the map.

But, as Steinberg notes, there’s a danger in being openly ideological. Indeed, it’s rather late to be cashing in on anti-Bush ferver, since Bush will be out of office on way or the other on January 20, 2009. Will there still be a market for liberal rants if, say, Hillary Clinton is elected president?

Jeralyn Merritt thinks it’s a “huge mistake,” regardless.

MSNBC needs to stop playing catch-up and start being innovative. Surely there’s someone with a modicum of journalistic credentials and a less antagonizing personality than Rosie. If they are committed to going the comedienne-day time talk route, I’d rather see them move Ellen DeGeneres into prime time. At least she’s funny.

They’ve tried various gimmicks, though, such as the afternoon blogger coverage, with limited success. The problem with news reporting is that it’s almost entirely events driven and people pick their venues based on the personalities of the hosts. It’s smart business, then, to hire people who are proven commodities on television and who can keep an audience.

The question with O’Donnell, though, is whether her appeal to angry housewives will translate into the evening news hours. There’s not a lot of competition in “The View’s” time slot but at least three competing news programs at any given period in prime time.

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About James Joyner
James Joyner is the publisher of Outside the Beltway, an associate professor of security studies at the Marine Corps Command and Staff College, and a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. He has a PhD in political science from The University of Alabama. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter.

Comments

  1. Dave Schuler says:

    I think they’re trying to capitalize on Air America’s enormous success.

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  2. TheHat says:

    Somebody once said that it was a very bad idea to be seeking a greater market share of a declining industry. That appears to be MSNBCs position. I doubt that it will be successful. I am inclined to chuckle at their stupidity and wish them ‘no luck at all’.

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  3. Dave Schuler says:

    Still, it will be fascinating to see the targeted advertising. What do angry progressives buy?

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  4. Anderson says:

    Will there still be a market for liberal rants if, say, Hillary Clinton is elected president?

    Hm. You mean, the way FoxNews crashed and burned after Bush became president in 2001?

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  5. Patrick T. McGuire says:

    Reminds me of a guy I worked with many years ago. Because of a bad pricing policy, he was losing money on every unit of inventory that he sold. When asked what he was going to do to start generating a profit, he replid “increase sales volume”.

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  6. James Joyner says:

    You mean, the way FoxNews crashed and burned after Bush became president in 2001?

    With the exception of O’Reilly, Fox has never been about angry rants but rather an anti-elite media populism. That was a very distinct niche with no competition that appealed to a broad swathe of middle America.

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  7. steve real says:

    Off-topic comment in violation of site policies deleted.

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  8. Lurking Observer says:

    I suspect it will depend on the brand of leftism that is being purveyed.

    The Left and the Right in this country are asymmetrical. Among conservatives, there are social conservatives, fiscal conservatives, neo-cons, and paleo-cons.

    Among the Left (as opposed to merely liberal), there are economic Leftists (who would like to see confiscatory tax levels and greater redistribution), libertarian Leftists (many of whom are opposed to drug laws), social Leftists (anti-gun, pro-gay marriage), pacifist Leftists (either opposing all use of force or American use of force) to name but a few. This is aside from the anti-Bush/anti-Republican types.

    Rosie O’Donnell and Olbermann will probably have difficulties in a Democratic administration, b/c they fall primarily into that last category.

    But a frankly economic Leftist perspective might well find a home—especially ironic given CNBC’s programming. Imagine Robert Reich hosting a program, or whoever has inherited the mantle of Michael Harrington.

    Similarly, it would be interesting to try airing a television equivalent of Pacifica Radio.

    Of course, as Dave Schuler implies, they’d have to be hard-core Left, and not merely liberal, lest they cannibalize among the non-Fox network numbers….

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  9. Bandit says:

    I’d rather see them move Ellen DeGeneres into prime time. At least she’s funny.

    See there are a lot more crazy people out there than you thought – what else could explain anyone thinking Ellen Degeneres is funny?

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  10. floyd says:

    It is just so sad that I will miss this wonderful tranformartion,since I watched Mr. Olberman’s rant today with morbid curiosity. I wanted to see if he would either shut-up or make a point. Since he did neither,I decided it was time to finally delete the channel for good.

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  11. Grewgills says:

    I wanted to see if he would either shut-up or make a point. Since he did neither,I decided it was time to finally delete the channel for good.

    Yet countless pointless rants by Hannity and O’Reilly don’t motivate you to delete Fox”News” from your remote. Why?

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