After 10 years, MSNBC still looking for its niche

Associated Press

Since MSNBC switched on a decade ago, the question has hung over its executives' heads: Is there really a need for three all-news networks?

MSNBC's energetic legal correspondent turned general manager, Dan Abrams, said it's a fair query, but one that really should be addressed to his competitors at CNN. "I have no interest in being anything like CNN," said Abrams, a surprise appointment to replace Rick Kaplan last month. "The biggest weakness of CNN is I often find myself dozing off as I am watching. I rarely find CNN's coverage to be compelling."

In contrast, Abrams is determined to make MSNBC's programming "a little edgier, a little faster and more urgent" than before. Clearly, he's not afraid to fight, which may be a useful trait. MSNBC, which celebrated its 10th anniversary over the weekend, has spent virtually all its existence behind Fox News Channel and CNN in the ratings, groping for an identity and even a reason to exist.

Abrams, 40, is the ultimate example of what can happen to the office busybody. After years of peppering his bosses with memos and suggestions about what MSNBC could do better, they finally said, "OK, you try it."

Veteran executive Phil Griffin is watching over the first-time manager from NBC News headquarters in New York. "He has a passion and love for MSNBC and cable news and that's what you need," Griffin said. "He understands. He's been there and he's seen what's worked and what hasn't worked, and that is so important to us going forward."

Abrams has moved swiftly to make changes. Tucker Carlson's show was shifted to the late afternoon to fill Abrams' old time slot, renamed "Tucker" and beefed up with new segments like "Beat the Press," a daily review of news coverage. It even praised CNN's Larry King last week for his reporting on the scene of a New York building collapse.

Joe Scarborough's hour is being refocused to concentrate on news of interest between the two coasts.

The boldest move was to cancel Rita Cosby's show and institute a two-hour block of documentaries starting at 7 p.m., the prime-time centerpiece in the West. The "Dateline NBC" production team has contributed shows on life inside a prison, illegal border crossings, how crystal meth affects users and what states do to remove children from unsafe homes.

Test-driven on weekends, these documentaries draw bigger audiences than MSNBC's talk shows and are something the network does better than its rivals, Griffin said.

The danger may be apparent already, however: MSNBC drew criticism for not abandoning pretaped shows to offer extensive coverage of a breaking story when North Korea launched some missiles.

The "doc block" has flexibility to respond to news, but editors didn't judge that story worthy of pre-emption, Abrams said. On Thursday night, CNN carried live coverage of Israel's attacks on Lebanon while MSNBC showed a documentary on a Los Angeles coroner.

During the daytime, Abrams said, "we're going to do an enormous amount of breaking news, much more than we've ever done before."

What's ultimately more important than the individual changes is MSNBC's ability to establish a clear identity.

"The challenge hasn't changed in 10 years -- to clarify why MSNBC is an alternative to CNN," said Erik Sorenson, MSNBC's general manager from 1998 to 2004. "Fox has succeeded in doing that; they have a clear identity and purpose.... MSNBC has continued to struggle to identify itself. It was an issue during the time I was there and it continues to be an issue."

There are plenty of alternatives; MSNBC could position itself as appealing to liberals, to women or to young people, said Sorenson, who now has his own production company.

Its overseers have always resisted occupying a niche. That may partly be because they work for a broadcast company and have the mentality of appealing to a wide, general audience, Sorenson said.

MSNBC remains a profitable enterprise, in good measure because of what it does for NBC News. It provides outlets for reporting and for spreading costs, and Griffin believes MSNBC's existence makes the network's reporters more aggressive.

Years of experience at MSNBC also helped Brian Williams' smooth transition to top NBC anchor.

Still, those things make MSNBC more valuable for NBC News than for MSNBC.

MSNBC intends to forge an identity by emphasizing what it considers its strengths compared to CNN and Fox -- long-form documentaries, political coverage and personalities with a passion for what they do, he said, citing Chris Matthews and Keith Olbermann as examples.

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