Capus takes reins from Kaplan

NEW YORK — After a little more than two years on the job, Rick Kaplan is out as president of MSNBC as Peacock brass seek a strategy that will accelerate ratings growth at the No. 3 news net.

Departure comes eight months before Kaplan’s contract was due to expire and on the eve of MSNBC’s 10th anniversary. Decade saw the net achieve a brief heyday after the 2000 presidential election but then stumble as Fox News Channel shot to the top of the ratings heap.

Viewership has slipped since 2003, and its 2006 average of 350,000 is little changed from its ratings five years ago. First-place Fox News averages 1.7 million viewers in primetime, CNN 786,000.

But there have been some bright spots in primetime, and MSNBC is the only news net to increase its ratings in 2006, gaining 23% in the adults 25-54 news demographic.

NBC News prexy Steve Capus will run the net on an interim basis while he searches for Kaplan’s replacement.

“At NBC News we know a thing or two about successful transitions,” Capus said, noting that “Today” and “Nightly News” were able to absorb change at the top without missing a step.

“My feeling is when you’re in a leadership position, you can make a change, and MSNBC has had real momentum of late,” he said.

Cabler has had some success at 7 p.m. with political show “Hardball With Chris Matthews,” which challenges CNN’s “The Situation Room” in adults 25-54.

Net has also seen growth at 8 p.m. from “Countdown With Keith Olbermann,” which beats CNN’s “Paula Zahn Now” but is a distant second to Fox’s “The O’Reilly Factor” in adults 25-54.

But two of Kaplan’s biggest programming moves, bringing Tucker Carlson and Rita Cosby to the network, haven’t yet borne fruit. Another show, “Connected Coast to Coast,” with Monica Crowley and Ron Reagan, was cancelled months after it debuted.

Rumors of his imminent departure followed the former ABC News exec almost from the moment he arrived. Kaplan had a long career at ABC as a news executive, exec producer of “Nightline” and producer of various newsmagazines.

“It’s not too huge a surprise given the rumblings of tension,” said one MSNBC staffer. “My sense is Kaplan wanted to try things that NBC News wouldn’t let him do.”

Staffing and budgets have always been an issue at MSNBC, which can draw on NBC News resources but has a fraction of the dedicated staff enjoyed by CNN or Fox News Channel.

Capus disputed the notion that differences of opinion had anything to do with Kaplan’s departure.

“It’s a newsroom environment. You are always going to have healthy discussion about editorial direction,” he said.

Capus and NBC Universal Television topper Jeff Zucker characterized the decision as mutual and amicable.

Capus, who took the reins from former NBC News prexy Neil Shapiro last summer, first focused on managing the transition at “Today,” which included hiring exec producer Jim Bell and news exec Phil Griffin, as well as recruiting Meredith Vieira as replacement for Katie Couric.

Now he’s turning his attention to MSNBC, where he previously spent five years as a producer for Brian Williams.

“They have built a strong foundation,” he said. “It’s time for an accelerated period of growth at that channel.”

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