MSNBC Grows Up, Realizes It's Smart to Be Liberal

by , Jul 15, 2011, 6:00 PM
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MSNBC turns 15 today. No could have envisioned its journey when it launched as President Clinton sought reelection in the heat of '96. The concept of an editorial page on TV was not in the business plan.

Now, it is the business plan -- and network President Phil Griffin thinks MSNBC can author the most popular polemics in cable.

"I've been saying for a while, we're going after Fox News," he said in an NBC Universal-produced video, where he rattled off various time-period wins by MSNBC.

Birthdays should bring some giddiness -- but Fox News will continue to dominate, at least for a while. Still, it bears revisiting some of MSNBC's evolution to appreciate how remarkable it is that it has even toppled CNN.

There's a saying that goes something like, "If you're 20 and not a liberal, you have no heart. And if you're 40 and not a conservative, you have no brain." MSNBC is an amalgam. At 15, it's liberal and has a brain.

When it debuted, Microsoft was a co-owner and there was some thought about creating an interactive news network -- as in, email us your thoughts and we'll talk about them. But soliciting opinions was rooted more in driving Web-TV convergence than stoking partisanship.

Some believed that the early MSNBC could mount a challenge to CNN with younger personalities and guests. Those people would have opinions, sure, but opinions wouldn't define the network.

It would be fair and balanced. That was how TV news had always been. In 1996, CNN was to news what ESPN is to sports now. And its dominance was rooted in reporting, not opinion.

Forget principles: Why would a network risk writing off a chunk of its audience by being identified with a point of view?

Further, any co-venture between Microsoft -- which was then the ESPN of technology -- and NBC News just wasn't going to be affiliated with one side of the political divide.

Quickly, it became clear experimentation with TV news or talent with no ties wasn't going to excite too many people, and MSNBC effectively settled into being NBC Cable News with meek ratings.

Times were so tough that former NBC Universal head Jeff Zucker remarked recently that during MSNBC's first 10 years, "We couldn't get arrested."

Over that span, while MSNBC hobbled, CNN was reduced to walking and Fox News started racing. The News Corp. network was launched several months after MSNBC in October 1996, late enough only to hector President Clinton for about a month before he gained a second term.

Under former Republican strategist Roger Ailes and News Corp. head Rupert Murdoch -- who had deep roots in a partisan British press -- Fox News used a "fair and balanced" tag, but relished establishing itself as a conservative salon.

At MSNBC, Keith Olbermann actually had a show starting in 1997 before leaving for Fox Sports. After he returned in 2003, he established himself as an anti-Gulf War activist and relished taking on Fox.

His pugnaciousness started to give MSNBC some buzz. It was Olbermann who ultimately nudged NBC to do the once-unthinkable and allow MSNBC to become a card-carrying liberal.

"There was not a secret meeting that said, hey let's go left with MSNBC," Zucker said.

It's still a bit jarring to hear Zucker or any other NBCU executive use MSNBC and "left" in the same sentence. With the esteemed NBC News brand attached to profit generators such as "Today," "Nightly News" and "Meet the Press," executives never seemed to publicly embrace the liberal identification.

MSNBC's Griffin sure has, though he seems to prefer the term "progressive."  Commenting on finding an audience in a wired world, he told Forbes: "Ours we defined as people who are interested in politics, and in our prime time we pretty much go [for] progressive politics."

That kind of soft-branding seems to be in vogue in politics. In the current budget debate, "revenue" has replaced "taxes."

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