NBC News and MSNBC are like great beer and fine whiskey. They're each satisfying on their own, but when mixed, expect trouble.
So after watching all the drama recently, I have one solution that would allow both brands to continue as independent success stories: separate them. NBC should pull MSNBC out from under the NBC News umbrella altogether. Put it in the cable group alongside USA and Bravo and all its other money-printing brands that are carrying the NBCU portfolio. Just have NBC News program certain shows or dayparts on MSNBC, as it does on the NBC broadcast network.
With one move, MSNBC would be free to pursue the borderline-brilliant programming strategy that has elevated the network, while at the same time protecting the venerable NBC News brand, which is a bit under siege following the loss of Tim Russert and the silliness that occurred during the conventions.
I'm old-school when it comes to terms such as “television news.” I was trained by some fantastic news people like the late, great Jim Thistle in Boston University's broadcast journalism program. I still believe that the person who presents the news should be completely objective, leaving the clearly defined analysts to then weigh in with opinions.
Even then, those analysts don't necessarily need to be one-sided to provide invaluable commentary. Russert taught us all that. And that's where NBC fell down when it let Keith Olbermann and Chris Matthews anchor convention coverage.
So NBC finally smartened up and made the move after a rather embarrassing stretch during the conventions that bottomed out either with the chants of “NBC” echoing through the arena in St. Paul, anchors bickering at each other on camera, or Olbermann's on-air reaction to a Sept. 11 video.
Now NBC's network election coverage will be headed by an anchor viewed as being without an agenda: David Gregory. That alone will help brush off the mud that has marred the NBC News brand, whether NBC execs will admit it or not.
And what of MSNBC? With personalities like Olbermann, Matthews and now Rachel Maddow, the network has forged a fantastic programming groove. I don't care what you think about its politics or anything else, there is absolutely no arguing that MSNBC's numbers—be it ratings or profitability—are on fire.
So the only issue some can have is that MSNBC, a network with a one-sided reputation, is part of NBC News. CNN execs crow that they love MSNBC because it pushed their network to the middle, perception-wise, between MSNBC and Fox News Channel. But if you pull the network out of the news division, you unload every bullet the competition has in its gun.
Separate Morning Joe and Hardball and Countdown and The Rachel Maddow Show from NBC News, and let them say and do what they want (not that they don't already). If anything, that may add to the ratings as the anchors are freed up even more. Reported opinion these days equals ratings and buzz, as Comedy Central has long learned.
All the news during both the day and big events could still be programmed by NBC News, much like Dateline or NBC Nightly News on the network. And NBC News correspondents should absolutely continue to appear—an invaluable advantage over the network competition.
One dissenting argument is that the MSNBC primetime shows make enough money to allow NBC News to practice great journalism elsewhere—which is costly and not ratings-friendly. So the NBCU bean counters will have to move some numbers around. Big deal—especially when weighed against the return.
The term “television news business” is itself an oxymoron these days. Old-fashioned, objective TV news doesn't make for good business. Ratings drive business, and those ratings are coming from the topics of the day presented with a bite.
MSNBC is doing that as well as anyone right now. If freed from the perceptual constraints of a traditional news division, it would be bulletproof.
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