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MSNBC At 10: Will It Reach 20?

In an e-mail to TVNewser, a former writer for MSNBC.com (who wishes to remain anonymous) reflects the launch of the cable news channel and Web site. Here’s an excerpt:

 Initially, MSNBC was to be an innovative breakthrough merging TV and the Internet and they were the first to accomplish this task. Somewhere though, they lost their way and MSNBC has turned into nothing more than another cable channel…

I can only hope that MSNBC finds its niche in the marketplace. I still can’t figure out what it is trying to be today. Nonetheless, Happy Birthday MSNBC. I’m wondering what people will say when and if it has a 20th anniversary celebration. Will it truly be a 20th when they change the name of the channel? Or, will they have to start all over again?
 
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I was associated with the MSNBC website at its launch and had one of the featured columns from day one. I lost count on how many “prototypes” we went through, but the Editors were driving the writers crazy. It was truly a comedy of errors and after numerous delays it was finally unveiled to the public. The website was best compared to a NASA mission that kept getting scrubbed in the final seconds.

Back then Merrill Brown was in charge of the project and while he was a good visionary, the various section Editors had little if any knowledge about websites. It was a high-school mentality trying to compete in an MBA world. Needless to say, it was truly a frustrating experience. I only worked through my initial contract term and not to renew as there wasn’t enough tea in China to keep me there. I was fortunate that my plate was full and the additional income was not worth the aggravation. Also noteworthy, the site was very graphics heavy and since broadband was in its infancy and the vast majority of users relied on telephone connections, it was very slow to load an individual page. I don’t think the upper management realized this as they had corporate high speed lines and all looked well to them.

What motivated this note is that after reading about the launch of the cable channel, like others, I remember when the airliner crashed off the coast of Long Island. Being at home at the time, I immediately turned to MSNBC to see how they would handle the situation. (I also was online with the NBC computer system to monitor the incoming information.)

As anyone with TV experience will acknowledge, when a story of this magnitude breaks and is unfolding there is what I like to call the 20-minute stretch. This is the amount of time it typically takes a reporter to get to the scene…meaning that for 20 minutes the anchor is sitting in the chair with little if any information and has to take basic, meaningless facts and fill the air until the first reporter is ready to go live.

On this night, Brian Williams was on the set and he did a remarkable job filling the void. However, there was one point where he was getting tired of repeating the same information over and over and said live the air something like, “will someone please give me more information on BASYS?” BASYS (I’m not sure if I’m spelling it correctly) was the in house computer system NBC was using at the time. It was basically a “dumb terminal.” But, it had an interesting feature called, “top of the screen.” This was nothing more than a method of delivering instant messages from one user to another. Evidently at this time, there was no information coming though the system and Williams was calling the staff on the carpet in front of the audience. It was a bold move…but it was live TV at its best. That’s the day I became a fan of Brian Williams.

If I may go off topic and make a prediction, after September when Couric takes the reigns at CBS, it will be interesting to see how she copes with her first 20-minute stretch. I truly feel that she won’t be able to carry the network through those critical first few minutes alone in the same professional manner as Brian Williams. I predict that the first instance of true “breaking news,” the novelty of seeing Katie behind the desk will quickly deteriorate and will have viewers rapidly reaching for the remote control.

On the night of the crash, MSNBC was fortunate that Williams had familiarity with the specific aircraft and stalled by filling precious minutes detailing its operation and delivering first hand information without having producers feeding information through his IFB. Viewers can tell the difference when the Anchor knows a subject vs. when an Anchor is simply repeating information fed from a Producer.

While Jodi Applegate was the first face seen on the channel (I loved working with her…one of the most talented people I had the pleasure of working with…it’s a shame she never got the recognition she deserved), Williams was the face most recognized with MSNBC. I think it was common knowledge at the time that MSNBC was just a training ground for Williams and a testing ground for budding talent, but Williams did a wonderful job delivering credibility to this start up channel. MSNBC was lucky to have someone of his caliber at the helm.

Initially, MSNBC was to be an innovative breakthrough merging TV and the Internet and they were the first to accomplish this task. Somewhere though, they lost their way and MSNBC has turned into nothing more than another cable channel. I’m still not sure if it’s the Lester (Voice of G-D) Holt or the shouting match talk show channel. The website gained notoriety though cross promotions throughout the NBC news division. It got to the point where it was almost comical watching Katie on the Today Show at the end of a segment fumbling to repeat the site’s address for viewers to gain more information. Back then, they would say the entire URL…http, colon, slash, slash, www, today dot msnbc dot com.

I can only hope that MSNBC finds its niche in the marketplace. I still can’t figure out what it is trying to be today. Nonetheless, Happy Birthday MSNBC. I’m wondering what people will say when and if it has a 20th anniversary celebration. Will it truly be a 20th when they change the name of the channel? Or, will they have to start all over again?

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