Monday, August 17, 1998

Week of 08/17/1998

Target: MSNBC
Two years plus and the merger is stalled
- by David Matthews 2

Two years ago, General Electric came up with an idea for a new 24-hour news program to run in competition with Ted Turner’s highly successful Cable News Network. But they needed a niche, something that would get people talking.

Thus was born the joint venture of GE and Microsoft, now known as MSNBC; a 24-hour presence that was both on the air and on the Internet.

MSNBC offered the best of both worlds - the news broadcasting of NBC, combined with the up-to-date access online through Microsoft’s Internet resources. The merger between computers and the television, otherwise known by network spin doctors as "Phase One," took place in 1996.

It’s now two years since that marriage was first consummated.. so what’s happened since?

Well, the joint venture has hit a few marital problems. Namely, the split between their two respective sides. Make no mistake, the NBC side of MSNBC is the dominant spouse in this relationship, and it shows by the programs they have running.

You would think that a news network that touts it’s connection to the Internet would have at least ONE show that highlighted its computer connection, right? Well, they did at first. The show was called "The Site," and it was a pretty decent broadcast of computer-related issues. But NBC officials said that it lacked "the ratings" for it to continue, and thus was cancelled after one year. The production company that made "The Site" has turned their lost concept into a 24-hour computer channel of their own called ZDTV.

Since then, there seems to be a division between the MS and the NBC. The web site, still run by Microsoft, provides news and commentary on a variety of issues. The cable channel, run heavily by NBC, appears to run rehashed news clips from their own NBC news broadcasts and news magazines.

What is original about MSNBC? Not much. Don Imus’ live radio simulcasts are a very creative way to spend about three hours of morning programming that would otherwise be spent on rehashed "Dateline" clips. "The Big Show" is nothing more than another talk show with a recycled ESPN commentator talking about Washington politics.

Then there’s that waste of space called "Time & Again." Of all the original programs of MSNBC, this one by far should’ve been on the short list for cancellation, and probably would’ve if it was hosted by anyone but Jane Pauley. This show presents the past in such a sterilized manner it makes the old Movietone newsreels of World War II look like "Saving Private Ryan" in comparison!

Let’s be brutally honest here - this broadcast marriage called MSNBC is going through the seven year itch six years too soon.

General Electric and Microsoft both say they’re in this for the long haul, but come on! That’s basically saying they’re staying together just for the kids. If they are really serious about this program, they need to go back to the initial concept of "Phase One."

First, they need to get rid of the rehash broadcasts. Three different shows featuring nothing but the same issue every hour means there’s some very lazy programmers that either need to be rejuvenated or replaced with people who have working brains.

Second, incorporate more of the Internet into their broadcasts beyond the occasional plug for their web site and the occasional E-mail flashed across the screen. Computer-related news can be big news for the media, as witnessed by Microsoft’s struggle with the Department of Justice over antitrust laws. It’s insulting when such news takes a backseat in its home field for rehash speculation about Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky. There are many issues on the web site that aren’t given two words on over the cable channel. The broadcasters need to utilize that untapped talent and develop it so the channel can be a truly comprehensive news network.

Finally, the powers at be in both GE and Microsoft need to remember that "Phase One" was the merging of computers and cable. That’s what its initial strong suit was. That is what got people to watch them in the first place. That means getting the two sides of this marriage to work together and not just serve as a marriage of convenience.

After two years of operation, MSNBC is still at "Phase One." Whether or not they go any further will rest not with the viewers, but with the two spouses.

No comments: