09 October 2010

MSNBC Leans Forward (for now)

MSNBC TV, the left leaning cable news channel, is launching a multi-million dollar campaign to promote its tag line Lean Forward” as there are efforts by the parent network and the website to disassociate itself from the channel. The $2 million will use advertisements on mass transit, print ads and a commercial directed by Spike Lee and is hoped to be used through the rest of President Obama’s first term. This campaign will target the corridor between Washington and New York, where the majority of liberal elites reside.

MSNBC TV and MSNBC.com were launched in 1996 in a joint partnerships between Microsoft and NBC News. It was thought that the synergy would capitalize the renowned newsgathering resources of NBC news and the interactivity of the internet. Microsoft has diminished its financial share in the cable channel to 18% in late 2005 but kept its 50% share in the website.

As it has evolved, MSNBC has become a left leaning news network that prided itself as being the place for politics. In fact, MSNBC President Phil Griffin says of his pet project: “It’s a niche world out there but we’re going to own this world and ‘Lean Forward’ is going to be the lens by which we own it”. The Obama Administration loves this lurch to the left by MSNBC. During an official White House briefing, Deputy Press Secretary Bill Burson let slip: “Keith Olbermann or Rachel Maddow … keep our government honest and pushes and prods to make sure that folks are true to progressive values.”

This strategy may work for MSNBC in securing second place in the cable news network race but it is alienating and embarrassing other parts of the NBC news family. Although the cable channel was created to spotlight NBC News talents, NBC journalists who prefer straight forward reporting say on background that they are embarrassed to be associated with MSNBC and worry that their reputations will be tainted by the liberal branding. Those worries certainly seem justified but now that MSNBC’s $200 million studio in Secaucus was sold to MLB.com in 2007 and news operations were merged at 30 Rock, it is difficult to separate the two entities. And if the parent network was really so mortified about tainting their brand with MSNBC, why did the network promote their siblings left leaning campaign on the Today Show?

As for the website, MSNBC.com president Charlie Tillinghast said “naming them the same thing is brand insanity.” The website is headquarter based in Redmond, Washington which is conveniently located near its corporate parent Microsoft. Executives are considering recasting the website as “NBCNews.com” and using “MSNBC.com” just to promote the cable channels content. This has the virtue of continuity since the website currently redirects searches for NBCNews.com to MSNBC.

But two problems remain. NBC News is also considered a left leaning news source, even without association with its cable channel partner. I think of the 18 hours of live over the air programming to global warming in 2007 for Live Earth featuring former Vice President Al Gore. But this push to go green was just another isolated incident. Consider the 150 hours of programming that the combined entities of NBC/Universal devoted to “Green Week” in 2008. This full court green policy press involved entertainment and news features on CNBC, MSNBC, NBC News, NBC Sports, SciFi Channel, Sundance Channel, Bravo, USA Network, and Telemundo along with Universal Studios.

As David Letterman loved to joke about when he was on the Peacock channel, NBC’s parent company is General Electric. G.E. has heavy investments in green technologies and the carbon trading market. So the NBC/U full court press might be less ideologically inspired and more business, but it has the ancillary effect of putting the media conglomerate on the same team as liberal ideologues.

The other challange that NBC/U will may encounter is when Comcast takes over, assuming that the FCC approves the merger. Comcast certainly would have less financial incentive to promote climate change. But the new corporate brass might also refuse to buy into programming a cable news channel that has niched itself into garnering 1/3 of the audience of its competitor (Fox News) by fully embracing liberalism.

Even as a news junkie, I was surprised at the ideological disconnect between MSNBC TV and the website. But even if it changes its URL, I will still know that it is NBC News and analyze it more skeptically. Maybe under new management of Comcast, I might consider using the website as a reliable news source instead of an obligatory tie in with Microsoft products.

News Flash  10/12  The "Lean Forward" slogan did not survive the Daily Show laugh test.  

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