Wednesday, December 30, 2009

MSNBC: The place for making changes

MSNBC, that cable network whose propensity for making changes around the house emerges about as frequently as The New York Times raises its newsstand rates, is about to moult again. But this time, it may be change demanded by viewers who’ve for years put up with a half-on, half-off approach to covering the news — one that just won’t fly anymore.

The Associated Press reported Dec. 28 that “MSNBC is shuffling its daytime lineup early next year because its strategy of spreading personality-driven programming throughout the schedule isn't working. The new approach will emphasize a fast-paced review of the day's big stories as they break.”

The MSNBC strategy of peppering dayparts with spiky, opinionated personalities saw fruition early this year, when the network trotted out new shows hosting by Dr. Nancy Snyderman, former CNBC business blowhard Dylan Ratigan, and “Morning Joe” co-co-host Willie Geist. Now, there’s new thinking afoot.

It’s already claimed one casualty outright. “Dr. Nancy,” hosted by physician and Snyderman, NBC’s medical editor, was recently cancelled. Snyderman, whose on-air demeanor made you feel like you were in a doctor’s office, didn’t resonate with viewers. Its placement (at noon eastern) may be one reason why.

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Ratigan was another victim of the shuffle preceding the one to come. Ratigan, the beneficiary of an hourlong spot in the morning lineup, went off the rails more than once as the blustery, caffeinated host of “Morning Lineup,” bringing the swaggering style he once brandished on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange to a soundstage at 30 Rock.

It didn’t rock. Just last week, Ratigan apologized for being rude to Florida Democratic Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz during a Dec. 18 interview about health-care reform.

On Dec. 21, by transcript and Twitter, he apologized for the outburst. From his on-air mea culpa: “Our mission and my mission on this show is to shine the light on what is really happening ... the way I went about that on Friday was a disservice to our viewers. ... I have some work to do.”

Not as much of that “work” will be done on the air. AP reports that MSNBC is cutting his show in half and moving it to the 4 p.m. eastern time slot before “Hardball,” Chris Matthews’ political-news franchise.

MSNBC will also feature NBC News political director Chuck Todd and White House correspondent Savannah Guthrie for a 9 a.m. eastern program meant to survey the day's upcoming news. Much of the rest of the day, MSNBC will present general news anchored by David Shuster, Tamron Hall, Contessa Brewer and Andrea Mitchell (this from Phil Griffin, MSNBC CEO).

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Through these changes upon changes, you come away with a sense of MSNBC like some mad scientist in a laboratory, mixing potions and swirling solutions in glass beakers, desperately holding them up to the light from time to time, the better to glimpse the right formula.

The one thing that apparently won’t change at MSNBC is the stature of its two destination-viewing tentpoles — “Countdown With Keith Olbermann” and “The Rachel Maddow Show” — or “Morning Joe,” the early-morning opinionfest helmed by former Florida GOP Rep. Joe Scarborough. Early morning and early evening seem to be solid at the network; it’s the daytime mix that still eludes the cable arm of NBC News.

MSNBC must be doing something right. AP reported: “Even after the election, MSNBC's prime-time has run neck-and-neck with CNN for second place behind the dominant Fox News Channel. MSNBC will beat CNN among its target demographic of 25-to-54-year-olds in 2009 for the first year ever, according to the Nielsen Co.”

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At other times, though, MSNBC’s programming philosophy has a lot to answer for. Like weekends. And holidays. And in the eternity of the eight hours between the end of its prime-time Olbermann/Maddow tandem (which ends at 10 p.m. eastern) and the half-hour preceding “Morning Joe” (which goes on at 6 a.m. eastern).

That’s when MSNBC changes its identity completely. You’ll look in vain for live news in that eight hours five days a week, as well as on the weekends and for most holidays. Instead of any real-time news reporting on weeknights, MSNBC repeats the day’s “Hardball,” “Countdown” and “Maddow” programs.

For weekends and holidays, MSNBC consistently reanimates old feature-programming Frankensteins, presenting documentaries, murder mysteries and its interminable “Lockup” series, which gives viewers the blow-by-blow accounts of life behind bars at several U.S. prisons — much of the footage years old.

There’s no escaping the cost-effectiveness of this strategy. It costs MSNBC next to nothing to air and re-air and re-re-air programs and documentaries they’ve already paid for, compared to the expense of paying on-air talent and staff to actually be on the air for late-night duty, weekends and holidays. MSNBC won’t admit it, but that’s one of the reasons why they do it.

But that strategy causes problems when you’re expecting the public to take your seriously as a newsgathering operation, one with an ostensible fidelity to the idea of news as a 24/7 phenomenon. MSNBC paid the PR price for that on Christmas Day.

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When the news broke that day that Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, a disaffected 23-year old Nigerian and self-described al-Qaida partisan, apparently attempted to blow up a Detroit-bound Delta airliner with three ounces of an exotic explosive concealed in his underwear, you didn’t get it from MSNBC. Not at first.

CNN and the Fox News Channel — Fox News! — covered the event from almost the beginning, grasping both the gravity of the story itself and its wider implications for the U.S. global campaigns against terrorism. Greta van Susteren and Ali Velshi stayed with it, while MSNBC did live cut-ins once an hour, monitoring the situation with snapshots, compared to the portraits CNN and Fox were building.

(To be sure, CNN and Fox use tape from earlier in a given day’s programming like MSNBC does, but the institutional mindset, especially at CNN, is geared to maintaining an active news presence round the clock, ready to jump in on literally breaking news with an immediacy that MSNBC doesn’t have.)

MSNBC came back on Monday, updating what happened over the weekend, essentially backing and filling on a story that exploded without them. What happened over the Christmas weekend wasn’t just a one-off mistake; it underscored what’s long been one of the problems with looking at MSNBC as a reliable source of news in a 24/7 age.

MSNBC’s schedule of coverage suggests they’ve been trying to be a cable news network that keeps to the schedule of broadcast news. It’s a wonder this attempt to have cake and eat it too has lasted as long as it has.

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The blogosphere has noticed. The network caught much grief there earlier in the year when it used taped feature programming during the dramatic and potentially game-changing election-related protests in Iran, conceding the high ground to CNN, Fox, and even The Huffington Post, whose Nico Pitney monitored the protests in a marathon display of 21st-century journalism.

The Daily Kos Web site slapped MSNBC for that: “What are they, a high school radio station left on autopilot from Friday night to Monday morning? ... If MSNBC wants to be a force, when will they wake up?”

Rachel Sklar, a blogger for the Mediaite Web site, weighed in strong on Christmas night:

"Tonight, the White House is calling an attempt to detonate a bomb aboard Northwest Flight 253 an attempted terror attack, by a man who himself claims to have been sent by al Qaeda — and MSNBC is showing “Disappearance at the Dairy Queen. ...

"If you're going to call yourself a news network, then cover the news.”

Also on Mediaite, Sklar commenter I’m Not Blue observed: “MSNBC blew it… they don’t have good weekend coverage, and virtually no holiday coverage. They should have been on this story… at least for a little while. The fact that they didn’t even go to a local affiliate for programming shows that when they leave for the holiday, they take all the decision makers and producers along with them. There should have been someone who could have made that decision, and change sources… but there wasn’t.”

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Like a lot of Americans who’ll use the occasion of the New Year for doing everything from joining a yoga class to giving up cigarettes, the cerebrators at MSNBC might do well to give up some old bad habits.

In an era of relentless event, MSNBC has institutionalized a newsgathering model that’s more casual and convenient than these times demand. Goes without saying: in the evolving news and information age, you can’t be a player if you don’t show up.

There are moves pending that indicate the network’s prepping for another of its ritual makeovers. There’s also a growing groundswell of popular opinion: If a makeover just skims the surface, it’s not a makeover. MSNBC’s long overdue for a real one.

Image credits: MSNBC log: © 2009 NBC Universal. Ratigan: Still from MSNBC. Mad scientist: via Lockup title card: MSNBC. Abdulmutallab: Via New York Daily News.

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