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MSNBC At 10: What Could Have Been

Imagine what MSNBC could have been.

It’s hard to resist the temptation to second-guess the decisions of the network’s executives. When the third-place cable news channel debuted on July 15, 1996, its slogan expressed an effort to “get connected:” to merge television and the Internet to create a new kind of news organization.

brownjuly16.jpgMerrill Brown, the first editor in chief of MSNBC.com, thinks it would have worked, if the plug hadn’t been pulled before the Web became ubiquitous.

“Had they stuck with this, and had MSNBC patiently nurtured the notion of a news network focused on convergence for young people, I think it would be a huge winner today,” he said in a recent interview with TVNewser. “Everybody’s trying to get young, and MSNBC was positioned to be young. Unfortunately the financial dynamics and the political and strategic dynamics wouldn’t let that vision work out.”

When the NBC/Microsoft partnership was unveiled in 1996, the promotions emphasized the way the world’s largest technology company was meeting the worldwide resources of NBC News.

MSNBC.com worked with the cable news net to integrate the two mediums. “We were doing things that were ahead of their time — URL’s on the screen, references to Web programming, efforts to stream, efforts to use applications to drive TV content, polls — a variety of things in the late 1990′s that are not utterly commonplace across television.”

It was all brand new at the time — in Brown’s words, “convincing Dateline to put a URL on the screen in 1997 was a huge win.”

It was groundbreaking. But the Web-focused strategy didn’t last.

There were short range pressures, and the broadcast business was already under economic pressure, and they went in other directions in search of a brand definition,” Brown said.

In the short term, it appeared to work. A fixation with live, breaking news attracted viewers during the “Lewinsky era,” but the channel always lost viewers during slow news cycles.

If the Web strategy “had been nurtured and followed up on and expanded, imagine what that could be today,” Brown said. “They could have gotten the demo of the network way down by now, and be selling in the right demo very aggressively.”

So why has MSNBC.com succeeded while MSNBC cable has faltered?

“Frankly, they” — meaning the NBC executives who were impatient with the cable side — “realized the Web was a new beast and let us create our own vision of what it would be,” Brown said.

The MSNBC.com team didn’t necessary have employees at 30 Rock breathing down their necks.

“Part of the success of the #1 cable news network is that almost nothing has changed in the last ten years,” Brown said. “Greta is the only significant change to their primetime lineup. There’s a lot to be said in cable news for building a brand, sticking with it, and building your programming.”

That’s why it’s hard not to wonder what could have been.

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