NBC Cable Has New Prime Directives

Some critics have labeled MSNBC and CNBC as "amortization networks" — outlets that help NBC mainly by sharing the cost burden for its news operation. But that's changing, officials at the Peacock Network's two cable channels claim.

Last week, MSNBC and CNBC unveiled their new primetime schedules. The big change: the sister networks will no longer share key programming, such as Hardball with Chris Matthews
and The News with Brian Williams,
which now run on both channels.
Effective July 15, MSNBC will get Hardball
exclusively, while CNBC will have Brian Williams
all to itself. Officials claim this strategy will finally permit MSNBC and CNBC to clearly differentiate their primetime lineups — and attract more viewers to the two ratings-challenged cable outlets.

The cable moves were announced as NBC racked up a record $2.7 billion in the broadcast network upfront marketplace.

As part of the changes, MSNBC last week disclosed that it has inked a long-term deal with the pugnacious Matthews; the pact runs through 2009. His role with the network will be expanded to include anchoring upcoming election coverage.

In July, Hardball
will move from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. on MSNBC, as one of the anchor shows for a slate that will kick off with The Phil Donahue Program
at 8 p.m., while Ashleigh Banfield
pulls up the rear at 10 p.m. That trio reflects the new emphasis at MSNBC, now dubbed "America's News Channel," according to network president Erik Sorenson.


The game plan is to offer what Sorenson characterizes as "analysis" and others call "talk," à la rival Fox News Channel.

"The word 'talk' is too generalized," said Sorenson, objecting to that label. "If there's big breaking news, we'll be all over it. But there are a lot of ways to cover the news, and we're going to do analysis, to put it in perspective. And we don't have a particular agenda."

At CNBC in July, Williams' newscast will begin with plays at 7 p.m. and 10 p.m. The news show — anchored by Tom Brokaw's successor on the NBC Nightly News
— will be part of a retooled CNBC evening lineup that will include fare such as Market Week With Maria Bartiromo, Louis Rukeyser's Wall Street, Kudlow & Cramer
and Capital Report With Alan Murray and Tyler Mathisen.
Cheryl Gould, the NBC News vice president who programs CNBC in primetime, said the financial-news channel hadn't been "saddled with" Hardball,
but now that it isn't sharing shows with MSNBC, it can move ahead on several fronts.

"This really is key with what CNBC is all about — extending the brand [business news] into the primetime lineup," Gould said. "In the old days, there was a real divide between our days and nights, especially when we had Geraldo [Rivera on primetime].

"Now we have the opportunity to have a distinct and unique lineup from MSNBC that is in keeping with what CNBC is about."


The NBC cable channels face the same challenge: they've both taken a nosedive in the ratings. While Fox News and Cable News Network racked up huge primetime-ratings gains in May, MSNBC and CNBC sustained double-digit hits, dropping 25 percent, to a 0.3 rating and 33 percent to a 0.2, respectively, according to Nielsen Media Research.

MSNBC has tried a number of primetime strategies, including offering documentary shows last year. Some find the recent turn toward "analysis" or "talk" ironic, since the network began as a relaunch of America's Talking — a talk-show formatted network run at the time by now-Fox News chairman Roger Ailes.

At CNN, general manager Teya Ryan said her service now clearly represents "only news, hands down." In her view, MSNBC and Fox News will now focus on "a lot of talk and a lot of opinion."

CNN already offers breaking-news analysis all day long. "We don't wait until primetime to do that," Ryan said.

Because MSNBC is so far behind, a Fox News spokeswoman said that the NBC Cable outlet is "positively irrelevant."


Richard Hanley, a communications professor at Quinnipiac University in Hamden, Conn., believes that MSNBC "is basically copying the format invented by Fox, which is talk radio on TV."

He also questioned MSNBC's claim that it was turning to news analysis in primetime. "Phil Donahue is not known for detailed analysis," Hanley said. "Chris Matthews yells. It's not analysis."

But some industry experts like MSNBC's new strategy.

"They made a strong move locking in Chris Matthews," said Al Primo, a TV-news veteran and "news strategist" with Eyewitness News Services Inc. "He is going to be the face of MSNBC. And Donahue is going to be a very big plus.

"They're creating a style and look for the network. They're making strong positive moves to correct their situation."

NBC's corporate hierarchy supports MSNBC's new positioning, and will back it with "significant resources and funding," according to Sorenson. He acknowledged that MSNBC is in a "comeback" mode.