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MSNBC's new Donahue factor

While Fox News widens its ratings margin over CNN, third-place MSNBC is trying to claw back. The NBC- and Microsoft-owned net last week lured veteran talk-show host Phil Donahue out of retirement, pitting the fiercely liberal Donahue against Fox News Channel's conservative combatant Bill O'Reilly at 8 p.m. Both of them will also face off against CNN's Connie Chung, whose own interview show should launch in June.

Donahue's addition comes as MSNBC revamps to what President Erik Sorenson calls "op-ed or point-of-view programming" in prime time.

"By 8 p.m., everyone has the news in this country. It's a time to sit back and reflect and put the news in some context," he said. MSNBC slashed more than 20 positions from its long-form–programming unit last month.

NBC President Neal Shapiro said that Donahue would be one of many changes to come at MSNBC but would not elaborate.

The addition of Donahue shakes up MSNBC's evening lineup. The News With Brian Williams
will move to 7, and Hardball With Chris Matthews, now exclusively an MSNBC property, will move to 9. Ashleigh Banfield and Allan Keys will shift back an hour. (Hardball
and Williams
were shown on both MSNBC and CNBC; now only Williams
will repeat on CNBC.)

Donahue seems ripe to join the cable news war. "If you want to discuss me as coming from the left and O'Reilly from the right, that's OK with me," Donahue said last week during a conference call with reporters.

Still, he'll have to adjust to a smaller arena. The O'Reilly Factor
may be the hottest cable news show, drawing 2 million viewers regularly per night. MSNBC averaged 340,000 viewers in all of prime during the first quarter. In contrast, Donahue's syndicated talk show, which ran from 1969 to 1996, at times counted 10 million viewers. Unlike with daytime show, Donahue's new show won't be done before a live audience.

Both Donahue and O'Reilly are repped by N.S. Beinstock. Uber
agent Richard Liebner negotiated Donahue's deal, and his wife, Carol Cooper, represents O'Reilly. Donahue and O'Reilly have squared off against each other in the past on ABC's Good Morning America.

Fox News, usually quick to rail against rival CNN, dismissed MSNBC as "irrelevant." On his show last Tuesday, before the deal was announced, O'Reilly chimed in, with mock horror: "And they want to put Phil up against The Factor. Uh-oh."

Chung, who joined CNN from ABC in January, is expected to put on a more news-oriented show. Not everyone considers her a contender. "It's all about the men," said one industry exec. "No one is talking about Connie."

CNN sniffs at its competitors' 8 p.m. gabfests, contending that Chung "is the perfect choice for CNN because of her 30 years of experience in serious journalism."

Donahue, 66, said Sept. 11 motivated him to return to the air. After retiring from TV in '96, he championed consumer advocate Ralph Nader in the 2000 presidential campaign.

MSNBC needed an injection of energy. As Fox News and CNN posted double-digit ratings increases for the first quarter 2002 vs. the year before, MSNBC is flat, notching a 0.4 in both first quarter 2001 and 2002. Fox News logged a 1.2, up 33%, and CNN averaged a 0.9, up 29%. Donahue's competition, The O'Reilly Factor,
averaged a 2.0 in first quarter.

Sorenson, who usually touts MSNBC's young demos as his channel's ace, isn't worried about Donahue's jibing with the younger set. He claims young viewers don't like to watch young talent. "Young people will enjoy Phil," Sorenson said, "If middle-aged and older viewers come, too, that's terrific."

MSNBC, Fox News and CNN are benefiting from an audience swell since Sept. 11, as viewers defect from the broadcast nets. Cable news networks now attract 57% of household impressions, leaving broadcasters with 43%, according to Nielsen figures analyzed by CNN. That breakdown, however, does not include broadcast newsmagazines.