Microsoft Divorces MSNBC

Microsoft sold its cable stake in MSNBC years ago; now, it's ending ties with the website, too.

Microsoft sold its cable stake in MSNBC years ago; now, it’s ending ties with the website, too.

AP (“Microsoft, NBC dissolve joint venture“):

Microsoft is pulling out of the joint venture that owned, freeing the world’s largest software maker to build its own online news service.

The breakup announced late Sunday dissolves the final shreds of a 16-year marriage between Microsoft Corp. and NBC News, which is now owned by Comcast Corp. The relationship began to unwind in 2005 when Microsoft sold its stake in MSNBC’s cable TV channel to NBC.

NBC is buying Microsoft’s 50 percent interest in the MSNBC website for an undisclosed amount. will be rebranded as, and readers who logged into late Sunday were automatically redirected to


The online divorce stemmed from the two partners’ desire to gain greater control over their digital destinies as the Internet becomes an increasingly important part of their businesses.

The inherent constraints of being locked into a joint venture sometimes handcuffed Microsoft and NBC.
Microsoft, in particular, had grown frustrated by contract terms requiring it to exclusively feature content on its own websites. That exasperation was exacerbated by the MSNBC cable channel’s strategy to counter Fox News Channel’s appeal to conservative viewers by tailoring its programming for an audience with a liberal viewpoint. The strategy fed a perception that material from MSNBC’s website was politically slanted, too. ”Being limited to content was problematic to us because we couldn’t have the multiple news sources and the multiple perspectives that our users were telling us that they wanted,” said Bob Visse, general manager of


NBC News, in turn, believes it will be able to attract more traffic to its stable of websites by forging other partnerships that were off limits when it was tied to Microsoft. “There is no question that we are going to have more flexibility to make our own decisions,” said Vivian Schiller, NBC News’ chief digital officer. “This is really an amicable breakup. We think competition will make us better.”

There has been talk of this rebrand for years. But it really makes sense, particularly for Microsoft. To the extent that people still associate MSNBC with the software giant–my guess is that most, like me, just think of “MSNBC” as an independent brand at this point–being thought of as backing a partisan site is bad business. For that matter, it has always struck me as odd for NBC News to waste what was once a gigantic brand by not using that label for its cable and online content.

Of course, all of the above applies at least as much to the cable outlet as to the website.  If Microsoft is worried about being branded politically by “MSNBC,” rebranding the website really doesn’t help much. When I think “MSNBC,” the liberal talk show hosts are the first thing to come to mind. As with most enterprises, I consider the website simply an extension of the main brand. Yet none of the stories make mention of any change in the branding of the cable outlet, so one presumes it will remain “MSNBC.”

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. One article I read last week about this suggested that this was step one in a move by NBC News to separate itself from the cable network. Until now, NBC News was the only news division without its own branded website. The next step would be to separate NBCNews,com from the network completely by giving MSNBC, or whatever it might end up calling itself, its own website.

  2. OzarkHillbilly says:

    So how much alimony is Microsoft gonna have to pay?

  3. @OzarkHillbilly:

    NBC gets a free copy of Windows 95

  4. Herb says:

    I keep forgetting why this partnership existed in the first place.

  5. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @Doug Mataconis: Boy, MSNBC’s lawyers really suck.

  6. Idiot says:


    Microsoft offered pre service pack versions of Windows Vista and NBC wants Ipads. Both parties are grateful that since Olberman is no longer employed by the network, neither has to worry about child support.

  7. James Joyner says:

    @Herb: In 1996, the Web was this shiny new thing. I think CNN was the only cable news channel at that point. So, taking NBC News’ resources combined with the most important tech company in the world seemed like a good idea at the time. It’s actually quite baffling to me that MSNBC never managed to emerge from the pack given that resource advantage. Certainly, Brokaw et. al. would have been an improvement over what CNN offered. But they instead mostly used C-team talent.

  8. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @Idiot: Heh.

  9. JKB says:

    @James Joyner:

    It was just a fade but NBC wanted to be seen as trendy. That internet was never going to replace television with it’s “in-depth” coverage. Like Music Television and the long forgotten music video, it would morph into a backwater but not be the place for real journalists.

  10. James Joyner says:

    @JKB: That’s . . . exactly what happened. While few have figured out how to monetize it for general news, the Web is now where people under 60 go for it.

  11. PD Shaw says:

    Interestingly, the seperation agreementl was made retroactive to the day before the Lean Forward campaign, at Microsoft’s insistence.

  12. @James Joyner:


    If I remember correctly, people like Michael Savage and Jesse Ventura used to have shows on MSNBC. That’s the D-Team at least.

  13. Jib says:

    @Herb: In the mid-90’s MS formed MSN to provide online services for Windows 95. Originally it was going to be a walled garden but the model they settled on was a more interactive and media rich version of Yahoo. MS bought out every small CD-ROM publisher in the Puget Sound area to provide content for it. MS also started Slate as part of MSN.

    Since Yahoo had content and Yahoo was big then content was clearly the key to the internet.

    I think the original plan was for NBC to prove the news feed for the walled garden version of MSN. But things changed so fast that what was settled on was MSNBC. It never seemed to fit. I knew people on the MSN team and I knew a guy who was a high ranking producer at MSNBC and most conversations in those days always included a part that went like “…no, no, no, MSNBC is NOT part of MSN…”.

    MS tore through and abandoned several versions of MSN in a few short years. Lots of people brought in and then let go as the focus changed, Slate was spun off, but MSNBC plodded along, restricted by the contract with slow moving NBC to being just what it is today.

    I toured the studio in Redmond shortly after it went live. Very impressive for mid-90’s internet technology. It was clear they thought the future was video on the web. They were expecting to produce something like interactive TV, something like the news segments on Starship Troopers. Interactive TV was a buzz word in the day and it was not clear if the distribution would be internet or cable (there were 2 mid-90’s interactive TV test projects, one in Omaha and one in Orlando, neither used the internet). MS was hedging their bets either way.

    But things went the way they did and MSNBC was left as a remnant of a forgotten age. If they had not been tied to NBC by contract, MS would have killed it off long ago.

  14. @Jib:

    I’d forgotten the fact that MSNBC originally had a studio in Redmond as well New York.

    Actually now that I think of it, I think the original MSNBC studios were in Secaucus, NJ and were only moved to 30 Rock relatively recently.

  15. Certainly, Brokaw et. al. would have been an improvement over what CNN offered. But they instead mostly used C-team talent.

    Simple. That would cannibalize the ratings of the NBC affiliates. But creating MSNBC was not a bad move for NBC. In fact, that´s why their news division is much healthier and profitable than ABC News and CBS news.