MSNBC starts traveling forums

Peacock to air weekly town hall series

NEW YORK — MSNBC is jumping into the town hall business in a big way — greenlighting a weekly series of primetime public forums to discuss major issues facing the nation in the wake of the ongoing White House crisis.

The telecasts, which begin tonight with a two-hour examination of “Values in America,” are skedded to run through the mid-term elections in November, originating in a different city each week.

Hosting duties will be handled by various Peacock news talent, with “Dateline NBC” correspondent Josh Mankiewicz and NBC News reporter Kelly O’Donnell fronting the first seg live from the University of San Diego’s Shiley Theater.

MSNBC general manager Erik Sorenson says the town hall sessions, which will focus on topics other than the Clinton sex scandal, are an attempt to up the cabler’s interactivity quotient beyond the current mix of viewer phone-ins and e-mails.

‘Not the same’

“We don’t feel it’s adequate to put a disembodied voice on the air. It’s not the same as going into a community (to get viewer opinion),” Sorenson told Daily Variety.

MSNBC’s town hall announcement comes just days after CNN devoted three nights to a series of well-promoted forums on the White House situation. The trio of town halls were seen in an average of 1.3 million homes, according to Nielsen figures — a 180% increase over CNN’s year-to-date time period average.

With the White House scandal and the escalating war against terrorism generating breaking news on a regular basis, Sorenson said MSNBC will continue to tweak its schedule to take advantage of viewers’ interest in the stories. “We’re trying to be more responsive,” he said.

One possibility: expanding “The News with Brian Williams” from one to two hours on nights when events warrant.

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