Monday, July 25, 2011

Week of 07/25/2011

Whither MSNBC?
15 Years Later, “Phase One” Fails
– by David Matthews 2

It was a little over fifteen years ago this month that something called “Phase One” was launched.

“Phase one” was supposed to be the “next generation” of news, providing cutting-edge technology with the resources of an established national news service. A joint venture between the biggest technology company of the time, Microsoft, and one of the “Big Three” in media, NBC.

That “next generation”… was MSNBC.

At first it was unique. It provided an emphasis on technology as well as current events. It introduced people to the Internet and often directed viewers to their own website for more information on the stories they provided. At the time, that was considered innovative.

Unfortunately, it was a “next generation” that died an early death, and in its place was a cable changeling. It wasn’t even two years into “Phase one” when the executives at MSNBC pretty much abandoned the “tech” side of the equation and put everything they had into the cable news business. Gone were the shows about technology and gaming, gone were the tips and tricks of the Internet and the new generation of devices that would aid society into the 21st century. Gone was everything Microsoft except for the “MS”.

So what did viewers get for the rest of those fifteen years?

They got “All Monica Lewinsky, all the time.” They got the “subject du jour” rehashed over and over and over again until they start checking out the Golf Channel just to break the monotony. They got repeats and rehash of NBC’s news magazine show “Dateline”, only they’d customize it into themes such as “To Catch A Predator” and “Caught on Camera”. It wouldn’t be too bad if those aired only on MSNBC, but these are all shows that would air first on NBC and then repeated ad infinitum-ad nausium on MSNBC.

So… what about new material? Material that would be excusive to MSNBC? Well that seems to be where a lot of their problem has been.

How many show hosts have come and gone on that channel? Dan Abrams, Alan Keys, Pat Buchanan, Mitch Albom, Phil Donahue, former Governor Jesse Ventura, Michael Savage, Rita Crosby, Tucker Carlson, and Ron Reagan Jr. all had shows on MSNBC that lasted anywhere from a couple of years to only a couple of weeks. Keith Olbermann had two shows on MSNBC, and one of them lasted until just recently.

Don Imus used to have his nationally syndicated morning radio show simulcast on MSNBC until a bad joke by his producer (it wasn’t even something that Imus said himself) led to a self-serving crusade to get rid of him. And where did he go? He ended up with the competition.

The only original show that has remained with any real longevity to this day is “Hardball with Chris Matthews”, and even then they rehash his program two hours after it airs.

It seems that the executives at MSNBC want something that is physically impossible… they want to have “firebrands” without the “fire”.

MSNBC media personalities say something inflammatory and they get suspended when someone complains. Ed Schultz goes off on a tirade on his radio show, not even something that he said on his MSNBC program, and he gets suspended from his TV show! Time editor and “Moring Joe” contributor Mark Halprin gets goaded into calling President Obama “a dick” on live TV and he gets suspended. It’s like hiring an arsonist and then getting surprised when the arsonist lights a match.

In the other hand, Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News, which came out only a few months after MSNBC, soared to the top of the pile, partly because of their firebrands like Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity and Geraldo Rivera. They even managed to snag Glenn Beck for a few years before his ego became so huge that not even Murdoch’s own money could keep him afloat. Murdoch brought over CNN’s egomaniac Lou Dobbs, and put Sarah Palin, Newt Gingrich, and former Governor Mike Huckabee on the payroll.

In other words, rather than to shy away from the “fire” of the firebrands, Fox News puts them on salary and backs them up, and with the exception of Beck, those firebrands still have a place to do what they get paid quite well to do.

Let’s get brutally honest here… after fifteen years of being on cable, it’s safe to say that MSNBC has been slowly meandering itself into obscurity and eventual oblivion. They have clearly abandoned their initial idea of being the “next generation” and, instead, they have been trying desperately to be a kindler and gentler cable channel with all of the appeal of sour milk.

Granted, the cable channel has just changed corporate hands from General Electric to Comcast, but that doesn’t mean that they should remain as the media milquetoast that they have become. If they want to survive, they need to make some serious changes to how they operate.

For starters, if they’re going to be like Fox News, then they need to go to bat for the talent they hire. Firebrands are hired to say inflammatory things. That’s how they get and keep their audience. If the network executives are not willing to back that kind of media personality, either as a host or contributor, then they have no business bringing them over, period.

Second, they need to ditch the rehashed news magazines, or at least make the decision about whether or not they should air them on either NBC or MSNBC, but not both. As long as MSNBC gets NBC’s hand-me-downs to fill up the schedule, there’s no incentive to come up with or to support anything new that would set them apart from the other cable channels.

Third, MSNBC executives really need to come up with and support something new and unique that makes them stand out instead of trying to be like either Fox News or CNN. Once upon a time, they really had that something new with their mixture of news and technology. Granted, they abandoned that edge for “All Monica all the time”, but that doesn’t mean they can’t go back to it, and it is something that has pretty much been abandoned in the past few years.

Once upon a time, CNN was the only news channel on cable. They haven’t really changed in all that time, even when MSNBC and Fox News came about. Fox News soared to the top without trying to imitate the competition. The executives at MSNBC need to stop trying to emulate the competition or serving as the hand-me-down recipients of their “mainstream” sibling channel. They need to shine on their own if they want to celebrate fifteen more years. It’s long since time for MSNBC to go from “Phase One” to “Phase Two” instead of falling back to “Phase Zero”.

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