MSNBC: Birth of a News Network?

In 1996 when NBC and Microsoft formed MSNBC, it was touted as NBC cable new’s equivalent of CNN and Fox News. When MSNBC kicked off the network was staffed by a variety of talent including Ann Coulter, Laura Ingraham, John Gibson, and John Seigenthaler. At inception the network had a decidedly news-oriented approach, but that lasted only until the turn of the century.

Early into 2001 Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer voiced regret at the company’s involvement in the network as the tenor of the network began to change from straight news towards politically left-wing spin. It wasn’t long before NBC staffed up MSNBC with the most left-wing hosts they could obtain. Talent such as Keith Olbermann, NBC’s Chris Mattews and David Gregory became network regulars driving MSNBC further left.

NBC Seizes Control of MSNBC

On December 23, 2005 NBC Universal acquired an additional 32% share of MSNBC from Microsoft, solidifying its control over television operations and received the option to purchase the remaining 18 percent of the network after 2 years; NBC exercised that option in 2007 gaining full control of the network.


MSNBC attempted several times to include more moderate views on the network such as Tucker Carlson and Rita Crosby, but the strong left-wing leanings of the management put little wind in the sails of these endeavors. When Phil Griffin, a senior vice president at NBC, gained control of operations in 2006 the future course of the network, solidly in a liberal/progressive direction, was locked in.

In 2008 MSNBC’s election coverage began to demonstrate the absolute liberal bias of the network which was capped off by the hiring of progressive political analyst Rachel Maddow. The decidedly pro-Obama network served as much as an advocacy group for the Obama presidential campaign as if they were a paid public relations firm.

While MSNBC had long argued that it was a news organization without any political bias, the network gave up that subterfuge in 2010, unveiling an advertising campaign called “Lean Forward”.

“We’ve taken on CNN and we beat them,” Griffin told employees at a series of celebratory “town hall” meetings. “Now it’s time to take on Fox.”

Concerning the campaign, Griffin said, “It is active, it is positive, it is about making tomorrow better than today, a discussion about politics and the actions and passions of our time.”

The campaign embraced the network’s politically progressive identity spending $2 million on Internet, television, and print advertising. The network had solidly hitched their wagons to the democratically controlled House and Senate, as well as the political future of Barack Obama; the transition from a news organization to a representative of the Democratic National Committee was complete.

After the 2010 election cycle, with the nation’s displeasure with the direction of the country and the loss of control of the House along with gains in the Senate by Republicans, MSNBC’s decision to openly go all-liberal/all-day began to prove folly. While Fox News clearly had some right-wing hosts, they also had a modicum of balance which allowed them to draw both conservatives and liberals. MSNBC’s approach could only appeal to liberals at a time when liberals were beginning to lose confidence in the Obama administration.

2011 continued the trend for MSNBC, yet the network made no moves to become more impartial. Its advances against CNN were lost and it landed solidly in 3rd place in coverage of the first 2 GOP primary events of 2012. It’s clear that MSNBC management has made the decision to go down with the ship.

CNN has at least a fragment of balance allowing them to appeal to a wider audience that MSNBC, yet the talent and clear bias has prevented them from presenting a genuine threat to Fox News. Fox will own the cable news until the other networks accept that even liberals appreciate hearing an opposing view. MSNBC has decided that their viewers only want one side of political stories presenting them with no opportunity for growth and dusting off more than 50 percent of all Americans.

With a full year of election coverage facing the network and certain contraction of ratings, the question becomes whether NBC will accept the fact that their current incarnation of MSNBC is little more than a hole to dump money in. There’s nothing wrong with opinion-based broadcasting; Rush Limbaugh has made a mega-fortune doing just that, but Limbaugh isn’t competing with Fox News in prime-time.

Fox learned early there was value in opinion-based broadcasting only if they balanced the programs. Hannity and Combs took 2 individuals on opposite sides of the political spectrum and created a hugely successful prime-time program. Liberals could cheer on Combs left-wing take on news of the day and conservatives could enjoy Hannity battling for their views.

MSNBC attempted to target Fox News most successful program “The O’Reilly Factor” as a stooge for the Bush administration when viewers knew nothing could be farther from the truth. O’Reilly, a clearly center-right personality, brings in opinions from both extremes of the political spectrum, a recipe MSNBC cannot grasp; O’Reilly pairs equal parts outrage and entertainment, whereas MSNBC is purely opinion. The Factor is the least politically biased program in prime-time cable news and appeals to the widest audience; targeting O’Reilly was a formula for failure. The executives at MSNBC need to lock themselves in a room and watch a month of The Factor and do their best to imitate O’Reilly’s recipe for success. That’ll never happen because MSNBC’s objective isn’t ratings but rather to be a platform for expressing a single point-of-view.

MSNBC is a dead network broadcasting; perhaps the most notable accomplishment is that they continue to consume cable bandwidth and NBC corporate dollars. Somewhere at 30 Rock there has to be a semblance of intelligence that can see that inevitability; perhaps not.