Is Kaplan the Cure?
News vet gets his chance to turn around MSNBC
By Allison Romano -- Broadcasting & Cable, 2/22/2004 7:00:00 PM
When new MSNBC chief Rick Kaplan moved into his office, he immediately did some "paperwork." He symbolically tore down the long sheets of opaque paper that covered the inner-office windows that former boss Erik Sorenson had jury-rigged for privacy. The message: Kaplan's going to be a presence in the newsroom.
The problem, though, is the same: Can MSNBC be saved?
There are moments when MSNBC shines, usually with big news stories like the 2000 presidential election and the war in Iraq. It has a great bench: NBC News correspondents report round-the-clock. It oughta be a contender. But it isn't. On some nights, The Weather Channel gets more viewers.
Now Kaplan, who ran CNN in the late 1990s and served as a producer and news exec for ABC News, is preaching a mantra of patience. With nurturing and resources, he says, MSNBC's evening lineup of Dan Abrams, Chris Matthews, Keith Olbermann, Deborah Norville, and Joe Scarborough can grow.
"A lot of our shows could be great but need to make a connection with the audience," he says. Translation: If anyone watched, they might like them.
Take Scarborough Country. Former congressman Scarborough has "common sense" and is "down-to-earth," Kaplan says. "Why can't I find a million people in this country that are looking for that?"
Kaplan's impulse to finesse his current lineup—rather than clean house—is a fresh approach. MSNBC is notoriously fickle with shows. Programs hosted by Jesse Ventura, Phil Donahue, and Ashleigh Banfield were tossed after less than a year. The results: a demoralized staff and an inconsistent product. And while Fox News has surged and CNN holds on, MSNBC strives to stay third in the ratings race, just ahead of Headline News.
Kaplan denies having a grand plan: "There is no wand to wave. This is not a Harry Potter movie."
But he is known to be brash and dynamic. "He is not going to take the struggle lightly," says one insider.
What Kaplan does have on his side is Jeff Zucker, president of NBC Entertainment, News and Cable, who recently added MSNBC and CNBC to his watch. Zucker believes strongly in the power of promotion. Already, CNBC has hired Dennis Miller and John McEnroe to host prime time talk shows, and Miller's show has been heavily promoted on NBC. If MSNBC and any of its shows get similar treatment, it could help.
Sorenson had run MSNBC since 1998 and, with what sources say is about a year and a half remaining on his contract, will stay on at NBC News to work on "long-term strategic projects" with NBC News President Neal Shapiro.
There's chatter in the news business—particularly at 30 Rock and MSNBC's Secaucus, N.J., headquarters—that, if Kaplan succeeds at MSNBC, he may be elevated to Shapiro's job. It is an assertion that Kaplan, who had been working at ABC again since last June, flatly dismisses as "irresponsible speculation." But it would be a strange twist because, back at ABC's Primetime Live, Kaplan was once Shapiro's boss.
Whatever Kaplan's moves, they will be closely watched. He had a nearly 20-year run at ABC, where his credits include launching Primetime Live.
Kaplan's tenure at CNN, which stretched from 1997 to 2000, bears some blemishes. It includes the Tailwind scandal, when CNN retracted an investigative report asserting that the U.S. military used poisonous gas in Vietnam. Those were Fox News Channel's formative years; it now outdistances CNN.
The new MSNBC chief may want to take some cues from Fox News chief Roger Ailes' playbook. Says Kaplan, "The brilliance of Fox is their connection with viewers. It is not about right wing, left wing, or in the middle."
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