Will MSNBC Rock?

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MSNBC's decade-long identity crisis may finally be over. When the folks at the third-place cable news network decided last week to dedicate a big chunk of daytime to midterm campaign coverage, they were onto something. Funny thing is, they were onto it 10 years ago.

Last week's coverage was chock-a-block with smart reporting and political analysis from such NBC News luminaries as Nightly News anchor Brian Williams, Meet the Press anchor Tim Russert and chief foreign affairs correspondent Andrea Mitchell.

Considering how desperately MSNBC has been floundering in recent years, you'd be forgiven for thinking this was a novel idea and not the network's unique selling proposition when it launched in 1996.

I remember being at the launch party on the Saturday Night Live set, where the network brass were touting a lineup featuring a cavalcade of A-list NBC News talent, including Tom Brokaw, Katie Couric and Jane Pauley.

That was how MSNBC would distinguish itself from CNN and the soon-to-launch Fox News Channel, by drawing on proven stars to cover the big story.

MSNBC showed its promise during the aftermath of the 2000 election, when the Florida recount stretched on for weeks and the network drew on the NBC News bench to follow it. The coverage put the listless network back on course and turned it into a credible cable competitor. Ratings rose, and the network got some buzz among the chattering class.

But afterward, the network drifted again. As Fox News grew dominant in primetime, MSNBC attempted to mimic its competitor with a revolving cast of opinionated blowhards.

It tried its own spin on A&E's Biography series and ran some PG-rated newsmag fare, but the place never really seemed to settle on anything that truly set it apart from the pack. Though still profitable, the network lagged behind in ratings, in a perpetual search for a successful identity.

Back in September, I wrote about discussions within the network that proposed abandoning live newscasts, effectively transforming MSNBC into a newsmagazine channel.

Virtually everyone, from NBC News President Steve Capus on down, denied that such a scenario was ever under serious consideration.

Since then, MSNBC has confirmed its long-speculated-on plans to decamp from its Secaucus, N.J., office for NBC headquarters at 30 Rock as part of the recently announced efforts to cut back and consolidate within the NBC News family. This could be a step in the right direction.

Capus has said that the move to Manhattan is more about integrating MSNBC's operations with those of NBC News than it is about saving money. Last week, the results seemed to be showing.

Williams, who spent years honing his anchor chops in the Triple A of MSNBC before moving to the show at Nightly News, seems to be having a ball doing daytime political stuff at his old stomping grounds.

And MSNBC stalwarts Chris Matthews and Keith Olbermann have continued to see ratings grow in primetime—especially Olbermann, who still trails his Fox nemesis, Bill O'Reilly, but consistently beats CNN's Paula Zahn in the key 25-54 news demo.

MSNBC looks more like itself than it has in a long time.

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