MSNBC left in ratings dust

Despite powerful backing, news network can't keep pace with CNN, Fox

— It's a unique form of torture for a television executive. His network often had triple its usual audience the last two weeks, but MSNBC President Erik Sorenson couldn't enjoy it.

That's because viewers were there to watch the Winter Olympics, not news. With the Olympics over this week, those extra viewers will disappear. Sorenson's problems won't.


AP Photo

Erik Sorenson, president of MSNBC, is shown in the cable network's control room in Secaucus, N.J. Sorenson has been looking at ways to raise ratings, since the all-news channel has fallen further behind competitors CNN and Fox News Channel after the Sept. 11 attacks.

When Fox News Channel and MSNBC were both created in 1996 to compete against CNN, most analysts believed MSNBC � backed by the powerful team of NBC and Microsoft � was the most likely to succeed.

Yet in January, when Fox beat CNN for a full month in the ratings for the first time ever, MSNBC viewed the competition from a distance. Its average daily audience of 296,000 viewers was half that of Fox's. In prime time, Fox had a better than three-to-one advantage.

While Fox News Channel chief Roger Ailes established a clear-cut identity, MSNBC remained an amorphous brand name � and, in the past year, made a couple of very bad gambles.

"I think Roger just beat 'em," said Tom Wolzien, a media analyst with Sanford C. Bernstein & Co.

Ailes established a prime-time lineup that appealed to fans of conservative talk radio and, like the Republican political operative he once was, successfully moved to the mainstream, he said.

"When you're looking for more conservative commentary, you go to Fox," Wolzien said. "When you're looking for the best source for hard news ... you go to CNN. That sort of leaves MSNBC looking for its position."

Sept. 11 factor

A year ago, MSNBC placed a bet on continued peace and prosperity. It believed the audience for hard news in tranquil times was limited, so it built a schedule heavy on documentaries, which it also considered more appealing to the younger audience it was seeking.

With a recession closing in, NBC's corporate owners also decided that it wasn't worth spending much money to promote MSNBC, Sorenson said. At the same time, CNN and Fox News Channel were spending heavily on advertising and talent.

On Sept. 11, those decisions helped leave MSNBC as the clear third choice in cable news.

"If 9-11 hadn't happened, I think we might have had the best strategy," said NBC News President Neal Shapiro. "We were making money. We were reaching the core audience we wanted to reach."

The attacks played perfectly into CNN's hands initially and then, gradually, more into Fox News Channel's strengths.

Sorenson said Fox was "already on a good track before Sept. 11, but it was a real boost to them because they are so pro-government and pro-Republican. It was such a moment for the country to be pro-government and pro-Republican, they were in a better position than more traditional news outlets."

For its part, Fox News Channel simply dismisses MSNBC. When asked about its rival, its representatives sniff that MSNBC is "irrelevant."

Not only had MSNBC failed to establish itself as a news destination, it lacked bench strength. Although it used NBC News reporters liberally, the network hadn't established its own personalities beyond Brian Williams and Chris Matthews, and perhaps anchors Ashleigh Banfield and Lester Holt.

"In a crisis like (Sept. 11), you need more than four people, especially when two of them are on two of your channels," Sorenson said.

No news here

The Olympics, telecast every afternoon the past two weeks on MSNBC, were another example of a financial decision for NBC coming at the expense of MSNBC's identity problems.

MSNBC promoted its regular programming in commercials during the Olympics, but its experience with the Sydney Olympics in 2000 showed virtually none of those sports fans stick around when the games end.

And Sorenson's biggest fear � that a major story would break during Olympics coverage � happened Thursday with the report of Daniel Pearl's death. Except for a two-minute special report that came nearly an hour after the news broke, MSNBC showed a women's curling match while its rivals covered the murder of The Wall Street Journal reporter.

"For two weeks, it sent a message to news viewers in the afternoon that was not particularly helpful," he said.

That message: Look elsewhere for news.


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