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Helping to scare up some viewers for MSNBC

EVEN-NUMBER YEARS herald congressional elections, the Olympic Games and, with only slightly less precision, a new directional shift at MSNBC.

Last week’s installation of Phil Griffin as exec in charge and on-air personality Dan Abrams as general manager doubtless augurs another makeover for the cable news net. Their predecessor, MSNBC prexy Rick Kaplan, lasted a little over two years, which followed a 2003 facelift under former chief Erik Sorensen to copycat Fox News, bringing in Joe Scarborough and — however briefly — conservative firebrand Michael Savage.

Kaplan added Fox alum Rita Cosby, but despite CNN’s frequent missteps MSNBC remained a weak third in the cable ratings scrum, making another shakeup almost inevitable. As for the tilt of that switch, Abrams told the Wall Street Journal, “We need to reflect excitement and even irreverence. I don’t think news has to be boring.”

Damn right. If there’s anything we need less of, it’s boring news.

As is so often the case, MSNBC has sought to improve its lot with half-measures, when a full-throated plunge is required. Initially a pallid imitation of CNN, the channel began aping Fox back when the New York Times theorized about a flag-waving “Fox effect” at the onset of the Iraq War.

If history is any guide, NBC brass would like nothing more than a quick fix. So as opposed to tinkering and tweaking, why not brazenly embrace every cheap trick and stunt broadcast news employs — including NBC News’ tawdry streak, exemplified by “Dateline’s” Internet pedophile sting “To Catch a Predator” — and roll them into one?

Think of it as “Network” scribe Paddy Chayefsky’s satirical vision conveniently assembled in one place, and let the critics be damned. In a sense, MSNBC will simply leap ahead to where TV news is inexorably heading anyway, using Fox’s brassy profile as the jumping-off point, starting with the new slogan: “MSNBC: Because We Love America, Hate Pedophiles and Care About You.”

But that’s just the beginning. Here’s a proposed lineup that would both liberate MSNBC’s “brand” from its longtime malaise and refresh viewers with its honesty:

  • Shame on You With Chris Hansen: Expanding on his “To Catch a Predator” reports, correspondent Hansen would show up in people’s living rooms and scold them for, well, whatever. He’s really good at it. Consider this recurring nightmare I’ve had of finding Hansen on my couch:

    Hansen: So what were you planning to do here?

    Me: Nothing. Just watch a little TV, maybe eat some nachos.

    Hansen: A little TV of underaged girls having sex, weren’t you?

    Me: No, I might turn to Cinemax occasionally, but …

    Hansen: Cinemax, where they play soft-core pornography. So you eat greasy food and get some kind of sick rush watching young girls, is that it? Are you proud of yourself?

  • Outrageous! What horrible thing did some pundit, politician or university professor say today? The hosts would present the best of the worst, then engage in rip-snorting arguments and an occasional shoving match, invariably built around the premise, “Has [insert name here] gone too far?”

  • Hardball With Chris Matthews and Ann Coulter: MSNBC severed ties with Coulter once before, but let’s face it, that gal knows how to get attention. The key is to lock her into an exclusive deal, then trot her out in tolerable doses — say, once a week, like Howard Beale — to say something churlish. Feign outrage and horror. Analyze endlessly. Repeat.

  • Look Out! The Hour of Fear: A nightly recap of natural disasters, missing persons and bizarre diseases. More exotic threats could be simulcast on sister network Sci Fi Channel, which just aired a special, “Countdown to Doomsday,” hosted by “Today’s” Matt Lauer. In another synergistic flourish, all this could be set to Bernard Herrmann’s “Psycho” score from the Universal Pictures library.

  • Dopey News With Keith Olbermann: As a rare source of wit in the cable space, Olbermann could capitalize on his sports background — plus his longstanding practice of biting the hand that feeds him — and cap each day with an irreverent spoof of all the preceding shows. Think “The Daily Show,” only here, MSNBC would take the middleman out of the deal, demonstrating how hip it is by ridiculing itself.

This revised MSNBC would possess everything that attracts young adults and teens to the multiplex, only cheaper: Fun, excitement, laughs and a good scare.

And if that sounds scary, assuming the new team’s changes don’t work, just wait and see what happens two years from now.

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