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 fervor, 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.