Wednesday, July 29, 2009

MSNBC’s summer wardrobe

In the heat of the summer, MSNBC has been making changes in its lineup, mixing up its daytime on-air talent lately in what’s either a search for the right blend of old hands and new faces to anchor the network’s daytime news coverage (in the sprint to prime-time), or a holding action to get through the summer vacations.

The network’s taken another roll of the dice on its early-morning and midday lineups. Recently, a number of special guests have acted as co-hosts for MSNBC programs. Katrina vanden Heuvel, editor of The Nation, tag-teamed Wednesday with MSNBC political analyst Carlos Watson, a regular daytime fixture.

Earlier this week, Richard Wolffe, author of the Obama political biography “Renegade,” and Lawrence O’Donnell, former “West Wing” writer and longtime MSNBC political analyst, subbed for host Keith Olbermann on the popular “Countdown With Keith Olbermann.”

MSNBC has also been juggling on-air talent from other parts of the NBC universe. Melissa Francis, a reporter with CNBC (the business channel co-owned by NBC Universal and Dow Jones) has been working for weeks now opposite Contessa Brewer on the MSNBC set.

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This week, Donnie Deutsch — chairman of Deutsch Inc., a red-meat legend in the world of advertising, and former host of the recently cancelled “The Big Idea” on CNBC — has been subbing for David Schuster on MSNBC’s “Big Picture” segment, acting as midday co-anchor opposite Tamron Hall. It hasn’t always been successful. Deutsch, a man with a hardball, overbearing style, has a way of braying at his co-host and his guests that’s decidedly off-putting.

On Monday, MSNBC launched “Way Too Early,” with Willie Geist as host of this half-hour lead-in to “Morning Joe.” Geist’s show, which starts at 5:30 a.m. ET, is being pitched as that indispensable 30-minute digest of everything, from politics to pop, you need to know walking out the door.

“In 30 fast minutes, we’ll set the agenda and tee up the debates for the day,” Geist said in a network announcement. “Whether you're waking up on the East Coast, passing out in the West, or suffering from an untreatable sleep disorder somewhere in between, ‘Way Too Early’ will be a one-stop, A-to-Z crash course for your day.”

The taller order will be carving out a distinction between Geist and the other early-morning risers in an already crowded cable daypart.

The reliably-caffeinated Dylan Ratigan, formerly of Bloomberg and CNBC, continues his transition to mainstream cable visibility as the host of “Morning Meeting,” MSNBC’s top-of-the-real-morning (9 a.m. eastern) news and analysis show, which debuted on June 29. Ratigan’s show, like most of the others, offers its own news action items for the day ahead — its own bid to be indispensable.

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There’s more than one way to be indispensable, of course. MSNBC has smartly banked on Americans’ preoccupation with health-care issues, with “Dr. Nancy,” the personal health and news program featuring Dr. Nancy Snyderman, NBC’s chief medical editor, as the host. The show began June 29.

“Doctors are often treated as gods, and they aren't,” MSNBC President Phil Griffin told Howard Kurtz of The Washington Post. “This will break down some of the mythology around doctors and medicine.”

The show, on at noon eastern time, is proper to a fare-thee-well, broadcast on a set done in clinical blues and whites, with Snyderman’s sober-sided delivery about like watching paint dry.

And maybe that’s exactly the point: in a cablescape crowded with noisy, disputatious knights errant, “Dr. Nancy” stands out as much for what it isn’t as for what it is: a straightforward look at top-of-mind medical and health issues from the perspective of a physician (taking its obvious cues from CNN’s long-running Dr. Sanjay Gupta).

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Despite her obvious authority, Snyderman doesn’t exactly radiate warmth on camera; there’s something impersonal and borderline brusque about her. She sometimes mangles her TelePromptered lines; her team of producers and camera operators still fumble transitions. And the good doctor isn’t beyond uttering the perfectly silly. In a comment today about obesity in America, she admonished Americans to “stay in the perimeter of your grocery store where the good stuff is,” a statement that’s not so much advice as it is a bromide that belongs in needlepoint on a pillow somewhere.

Still, Snyderman’s program dovetails with rising popular concern about health care in the country; as the debate widens in the fall and winter months — a period in which the H1N1 swine flu is forecast to impact the United States — we should be able to expect Snyderman to offer real solutions for families stretched and stressed to the breaking point over health care.

If only all of this effort made an impact on the bottom line: TV Newser reported on Tuesday that Fox News Channel was still the one to beat, continuing its dominance in the cable news ratings. Fox topped CNN and MSNBC combined, and exhibited the most growth in the highly-coveted 25-54 demographic. In that cherished cohort, Fox News viewership is up 48 percent in total day viewing, and up 70 percent in prime time compared to the year before, TV Newser said.
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Image credits: MSNBC logo, Geist, Snyderman: MSNBC.

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