Hiring Phil Donahue to host a primetime show is just the "first step of what will be many, many steps" taken to shake up MSNBC, NBC News president Neal Shapiro said last week.
Looking to boost its profile and jump-start its ratings, MSNBC has convinced the talk-show pioneer and self-proclaimed liberal — now 66 years old — to come back to TV and host a nightly 8 p.m. show, starting this summer.
During a conference call with reporters last week, Shapiro and MSNBC general manager Erik Sorenson made no bones about the fact they're counterprogramming — and directly gunning for — conservative ratings champ Bill O'Reilly's The O'Reilly Factor
on Fox News Channel.
Connie Chung will be the third party in that fray when she starts an 8 p.m. show this spring on Cable News Network.
"I want to win," Donahue said. "It's even more exciting to go against a personality who has been so successful of late."
MSNBC, owned by NBC and Microsoft Corp., is trying to get some traction after stalling, while the ratings for fellow upstart Fox News have skyrocketed. During the first quarter, MSNBC's primetime rating was flat at a 0.4, according to Nielsen Media Research. By contrast, Fox News was up 33 percent to a 1.2, while Cable News Network increased 29 percent to a 0.9.
Fox News professed no worries about Donahue's impending arrival.
"MSNBC is irrelevant, and we wish Phil Donahue well," Fox News spokeswoman Irena Steffen said.
Details about Donahue's show were sketchy, but it would typically address the big news of the day with a variety of guests, according to Donahue. It won't have a live audience, but will take phone calls.
Sorenson reiterated MSNBC's post-Sept. 11 strategy of moving away from long-form taped documentaries — most based on the NBC News archives — to more live and hard news. Donahue "represents op-ed or point-of-view programming," according to Sorenson.
MSNBC boasts about its young and affluent audience, which prompted questions about Donahue's appeal to those younger viewers. In terms of news, Sorenson maintained that young viewers don't prefer young hosts or focus on age when it comes to news.
As part of MSNBC's modifications, Hardball with Chris Matthews
will move to 9 p.m. and won't be repeated on CNBC, starting this summer. "It's been one of our issues, and a significant issue," Sorenson said.
In addition, the five plays that The News With Brian Williams
gets on MSNBC and CNBC will be cut to three.
Donahue said he was prompted to come out of retirement because of Sept. 11, and what he sees as the need for a forum for those who question President Bush's war on terrorism.
Steve Donohue contributed to this story.