Who'll Right the MSNBC Ship?

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NBC News president Neal Shapiro last week exited his post on a high note. The Peacock Network's news operation was basking in accolades for anchor Brian Williams' coverage of Hurricane Katrina, on the scene in New Orleans.

The news was not quite so good for Shapiro's other charge, MSNBC: Its ratings for the hurricane coverage, as usual, lagged way behind its rivals.

In fact, so far this year MSNBC had continued on a downward ratings spiral, still struggling to forge an identity in the cutthroat news-network arena.

It remains to be seen if Shapiro's replacement will take a more aggressive stance in trying to turn around MSNBC, which parent NBC Universal seemingly continues to neglect like a poor stepchild.

Last week, Jeff Zucker, president of the NBC Universal Television Group, named Steve Capus, senior vice president of NBC News, as acting president of NBC News, temporarily filling Shapiro's slot.

ANTICIPATED DEPARTURE

Shapiro's departure has been anticipated for the past few months, and there has been boundless speculation about who will replace him, whether NBC News operations will be restructured and whether NBC Universal will ultimately buy out Microsoft Corp's stake in MSNBC.

One thing is clear: Zucker to date has failed to find a fix for not only NBC's primetime schedule but also for MSNBC and CNBC, which were put under his purview back in late 2003.

In early 2004, Zucker installed then-ABC News executive Rick Kaplan, a former chief of Cable News Network, as MSNBC's president and general manager. But Kaplan hasn't had any success budging MSNBC from its also-ran status in the competition with Fox News Channel and Cable News Network.

“He has a tremendous uphill battle there,” said Al Primo, a TV-news veteran, consultant and producer of the syndicated Teen Kids News. “We've all learned that it's having the proper combination of the right personality and the right content to move the programming forward. And so far he has made poor choices in those hirings.”

This year, Kaplan's big moves have included hiring CNN alum Tucker Carlson. The Situation With Tucker Carlson debuted on weeknights at 9 p.m. and has now been moved to 11 p.m, replaced by another new Kaplan hire, Fox News alumnae Rita Cosby, and Rita Cosby Live & Direct.

Primo described Cosby as MSNBC's “only bright spot,” while calling Carlson “an acknowledged failure.”

According to Primo, “Kaplan is an experienced broadcaster-producer and he has really shown poor judgment there.”

Another veteran news programmer, complaining about Kaplan's “inability to think out of the box,” said that MSNBC is “just a weak imitation of Fox at this point. They have no guts, no soul, in terms of how to program a network. Roger Ailes is eating their lunch.”

Neither Zucker, Shapiro or officials at MSNBC or CNBC were unavailable for comment last week.

MSNBC just finished a very bad summer. In primetime, the network posted a 0.3 rating, down 25% from a 0.4 a year ago, according to a Disney ABC Cable Networks analysis of Nielsen Media Research data.

On a total-programming-day basis, MSNBC also declined sizably, down 33% to a 0.2 this summer from a 0.3, according to Nielsen.

Financial-news network CNBC was flat this summer, matching its minuscule 0.1 rating in both primetime and total day from the prior-year period, according to Nielsen.

On the bright side, early results on the Carlson and Cosby shows look promising. From Aug. 29 to Sept. 7, Rita Cosby Live & Direct averaged 1.2 million viewers, a 536% increase over what Carlson's show drew in that 9 p.m. time slot in July, doing a 1.2 household rating.

The Situation With Tucker Carlson, in its new 11 p.m. slot that week, averaged 909,000 viewers, a 348% jump over what Hardball With Chris Matthews did in July.

In securities filings, NBC Universal, a unit of General Electric Co., doesn't break out numbers for its individual cable networks. But despite their low ratings, CNBC and MSNBC reportedly both serve NBC Universal well in several respects.

CNBC is a money-maker because of its upscale audience, an advertising draw, and has become a venue for repurposed NBC primetime programming. Meanwhile, sources said MSNBC is a vessel for NBC Universal to amortize its costs for NBC News productions and, in effect, has been relegated to being a farm team for developing NBC talent, like Williams.

“Anyone who is any good is scooped up [by NBC],” one news veteran said.

That's why some industry insiders are skeptical that NBC Universal will ever really focus on improving either MSNBC or CNBC. The top priority for the company will remain the big money-maker, NBC News, at least one news veteran suggested.

CHIEF CANDIDATES

After appointing Capus, Zucker, in a memo to staff, added that he is “undertaking a wide-ranging search for Neal's successor.”

But in his memo, Zucker was effusive in his praise of Capus. Capus worked with Williams, who has quite successfully filled Tom Brokaw's shoes as the anchor of the top-rated NBC Nightly News, at MSNBC. That has sparked speculation that Capus will wind up as Shapiro's permanent replacement.

But other names have surfaced as potential successors to Shapiro, including Kaplan, because of his broadcast network-news pedigree, as well as Court TV CEO Henry Schleiff. Schleiff and Zucker are friends. Court TV declined to comment.

Shapiro had reported to Zucker, who reportedly wasn't happy about recent viewership gains by ABC's Good Morning America against NBC's No. 1-rated Today.

Currently, CNBC president Mark Hoffman reports directly to Zucker. There have been press reports, led by the New York Post, saying NBC Universal will mount a restructuring that would put both CNBC and MSNBC under the NBC News umbrella, with a merged cable and broadcast news operation in New Jersey.

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