Take Five: Dan Abrams


Why has the competition between cable news networks heated up so much lately?

It's because the ratings are closer than ever. The fact that you've seen us now almost even with CNN, and Fox dipping a bit, has led there to be a much fiercer competition in cable news. Fox used to ignore us. Now they seem to be attacking us. It is somewhat perverse to take an attack as a compliment, but it sure seems that we're suddenly on Fox's radar in a way that we weren't before.

Do you think negative ads impact viewers' opinions or viewing habits?

Look, it's part of the branding of the network. I certainly can't tell you that an ad is going to make an enormous difference in terms of viewership. There already is an enormous change. A year and a half ago. when we weren't as competitive as we are now, these ads might have seemed a little bit out of place, but now it is a real three-way race out there, particularly between us and CNN. We are beating CNN in the key demographic with some regularity and on extremely important nights as well.

What was the idea behind your ads?

These ads help to differentiate us. They help show viewers there really is another alternative when it comes to cable news, particularly when it comes to politics. These ads are kind of funny. Sometimes I see the vitriol exchange between some of the news competitors in this environment. We're just having a little bit of fun with themes that certainly seem to resonate with viewers of these other networks. These are ads we've talked about for a while, but Fox has been very much on the attack against MSNBC as of late. It seems that some of the Fox News hosts have made a cause out of attacking MSNBC. and so this is just our effort at a little lighthearted retaliation.

Why do you think your ratings have grown to make this, as you say, a three-way race?

Our commitment to politics has been very important to the network. Our primetime has really come together. Some of the opinion-based and taped programming is working better than ever. The enhanced relationship with NBC News is another element. You're seeing people like Tim Russert, Brian Williams, Matt Lauer and Tom Brokaw regularly appearing on MSNBC. All those things together have made it such that we are in this extremely tight race with CNN for second place right now.

Where on your schedule needs growth?

We could grow at every hour. We have not put up the “mission accomplished” sign. We still have a ways to go. Even when we are looking at CNN in our rearview mirror, we will not say “mission accomplished.” We want to be ahead of CNN, and I expect that we will be within the year. I want to overdeliver and underpromise, so I hope it is faster than that. It is very telling that we aren't celebrating a one-night victory over CNN. We are celebrating trends.

Do you consider Keith Olbermann and Chris Matthews the faces of your network?

I don't like to use terms like that. I would put Keith and Chris up against any of our competitors any night. We are all very comfortable and very proud to have them leading our coverage.

Is there room for growth in cable news, or are you grabbing share from each other?

Last year, we were the only cable news channel to grow, but in the month of January, you saw growth across the board. Do I think there's growth potential in cable news? Yes. I think we're all getting a little bit better at it. I just hope we're doing it even more aggressively and faster than our competitors.