MSNBC Net Taps Kaplan

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Hoping to stem its long-running ratings slide, MSNBC last week named former Cable News Network head Rick Kaplan as its president. Most recently a senior vice president at ABC News, Kaplan replaces former general manager Erik Sorenson, who will move to NBC News. Kaplan will report to NBC News President Neal Shapiro.

Kaplan, who headed CNN's U.S. operations from 1997 to 2000 — a period that saw the erstwhile cable-news leader begin to lose its grip on the market — said he isn't looking to make changes in personnel or programming for the struggling news network.

"When you have a primetime lineup like Chris [Matthews] or Debra [Norville] or Keith [Olbermann] or Joe [Scarborough] — these are the people that ought to resonate with the country and are extraordinarily talented," Kaplan said. "What we want to do is build those strengths out."

Kaplan has his work cut out for him. MSNBC is a distant third behind Fox News Channel and CNN, averaging a 0.3 rating — a drop-off of 25% from 2002.

The network has suffered several setbacks in attempting to attract new viewers, including failed programming from veteran TV talk-show host Phil Donahue, former Minnesota governor and pro wrestler Jesse Ventura and controversial radio talk-show commentator Michael Savage.

But Kaplan said growing the network's appeal to news junkies and not overall household ratings is his main focus.

"I'm focusing on news viewers … I think if people are interested in news, I want them to be watching MSNBC," he said "I don't look at what we do as any kind of head-to-head, life or death competition [with other news networks.]"

MSNBC will look to boost its ratings going into the 2004 presidential election, which figures to draw a significant influx of viewers to cable's news outlets. Despite his tenure at ABC News, during which he oversaw the network's news programs Nightline, PrimeTime Live and World News Tonight, Kaplan said cable has become the dominant outlet for news information.

"Cable news is what more and more people turn to because they want news on-demand, and cable allows you to have news without having to get TiVo," Kaplan said. "What we need to do is to establish ourselves as that default for cable news viewers."