TV news is his heritage
On his way to law career, Sorenson found television—and stayed
By Allison Romano -- Broadcasting & Cable, 12/9/2001 7:00:00 PM
MSNBC President and General Manager Erik Sorenson planned on a career in law, not cable news. "I had every intention of broadcast not being my life," says Sorenson, whose father was a local TV anchor and radio-station executive.
Sorenson was a part-time law student in San Diego when he took a writing job at KFMB-TV San Diego to pay the bills. Before long, he quit school and worked his way up to executive producer at the CBS affiliate.
Despite his intentions, he has spent his entire career in television, most of it in the news business.
The first half of his career was in local TV. After three years in San Diego, he moved to Chicago to be executive producer for WBBM-TV news. He returned to the West Coast to join KCBS in Los Angeles, rising to news director at age 27.
CBS News brass took notice of the wunderkind and lured him to New York to executive-produce CBS This Morning, where he teamed up with now-CNN morning anchor Paula Zahn for the third time in his career. The show's ratings increased, and Sorenson was tapped as executive producer of The CBS Evening News.
After those high-level news positions, Sorenson flirted with other parts of the industry, first executive-producing the short-lived syndicated show Day & Date and, for two years, serving as Court TV's programming chief.
Working with Court TV founder Steve Brill, Sorenson learned the intricacies of the cable industry. "Cable is very niche-oriented, and brands and branding become so important to success," he said.
In 1998, armed with a background in both cable-programming and network news, Sorenson received a call from then-NBC News President Andrew Lack to take the helm of NBC's fledgling cable news net.
At CBS News, Sorenson had led coverage of the Gulf War, the 1992 presidential election and Hurricane Andrew. But nothing, he says, could have prepared him for running a news network after Sept. 11.
"To lead a staff in a time like this required taking off the formal mantle, getting involved with the people and understanding that sometimes their minds were elsewhere," says Sorenson, noting that he hasn't slept more than five hours a night since the attacks.
What he calls "the big story that galvanized the country" gave MSNBC a much-needed ratings boost. The cable network has averaged a 1.0 prime time rating since Sept. 11, compared with a 0.4 monthly average in the preceding eight months. MSNBC courts younger viewers with punchier programming and sharp young stars like media darling Ashleigh Banfield. "We're not going to beat CNN with the AARP crowd," he says. His viewers, he adds, are an average 10 years younger than CNN's.
Like many parents, Sorenson has struggled to help his children, who range from 5 years old to 16, understand the terrorist attacks. Although he has tried to shield his youngest completely from the news, he engages his older children in discussion and debate. "They are smarter than I think," he says. "I'm not going to give them extraneous information, but, when anthrax comes up or dirty bombs, we talk it through."
Sorenson says he learned a lot from his own father, who peppered him with advice about the media business. "My dad taught me about serving an audience, and they are simple truths that still apply 30 years later."
One bit of dad's advice particularly holds true: "Financial success is good for both the company and the community."
Sorenson believes that, if his network is successful, MSNBC viewers will reap the benefits. "Good business will allow us to go more places, have more firepower to cover stories and access more resources."
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