For MSNBC executives, the network's less-than-household-name
status was apparent after the first one-on-one debate between Barack Obama and
Hillary Clinton in February 2008.
Moderated by Brian Williams and Tim Russert from Cleveland, the debate was
7.8 million people on MSNBC. It was the most-watched program of the night on
the top-rated program in MSNBC's 13-year history. But suddenly, MSNBC
executives were fielding queries from first-time viewers.
"People did not know what MSNBC was," says network president
Phil Griffin. "They were like, â€˜MSNBC? Is that a business network, some
newfangled Microsoft network?' Everybody knows CNN. Fox News Channel, they get
it. â€˜MSNBC? Huh?'"
So executives launched a consciousness- raising campaign
that has included a new slogans--"The Place for Politics" and "Politics Comes First"--and strategic
marketing initiatives. Those initiatives included a deal with Starbucks to carry MSNBC's
coverage of the Jan. 20 presidential inauguration on the coffee retailer's in-store TVs. And the campaign
culminates June 29 with the start of the network's HD rollout.
The network is the last among its all-news competitors to go
it's not just about visuals. "I love our anchors and our people being looked at
But this is about being in the neighborhood. You get your regular core audience
to tune in, but a good chunk of our [total] audience is people who are flipping
If a news network is going to attract casual viewers and
turn them into loyal viewers, it helps to be in the same HD neighborhood as their cable news competitors. MSNBC
in HD will launch at different times on different MSOs. It will debut on
June 29 and on Time Warner in July. By the end of August, MSNBC HD will
be available in 11 million homes.
Being part of the same HD real estate with CNN and Fox News
is one thing, but brand awareness is another. "We still have to get our message
concedes. "This year, we've just been constantly trying to make noise in a positive
way so that people know who we are."
That din includes new dayside programming: The Meeting
With Dylan Ratigan from 9-11 a.m., and an hour hosted by health guru Dr.
Nancy Snyderman at noon, premiering with the June 29 HD launch. (Carlos Watson
hosts a news headline hour at 11 a.m.)
"We're changing dayside away from the TelePrompTer headline
news to Dylan Ratigan and Dr. Nancy. And we'll continue to do that less--of
people sitting behind a desk, reading TelePrompTers," Griffin says. "Our audience knows what's
going on. They've got BlackBerrys. They're on the Web. So we've got to give them more."
It's a strategy that MSNBC has employed to positive effect
in the early morning with Joe Scarborough's Morning Joe, and in
primetime with Keith Olbermann and Rachel Maddow. MSNBC, for years a distant
third in the cable news ratings race behind leader Fox News and CNN, has now
surpassed CNN in primetime among the network's target 25-54 demographic for the
second consecutive quarter, according to data provided by Nielsen Media
And while HD has not yet reached critical mass, it is where the
market is heading.
"I think you've got to be there now," Griffin points out. "And I think in a year or two it will definitely
make a huge difference. If you want to be competitive in this game, it's the
price of entry."