MSNBC seizes election mandate

Cable news channel rides political wave

It’s Pelosi vs. Bush, Hoyer vs. Murtha, Clinton vs. McCain. The story of midterms 2006 just began on Election Night.

At least that’s the hope behind MSNBC’s effort to keep alive the Election Night vigor when its Chris Matthews-Keith Olbermann partnership made the network a market-share contender with Fox News Channel and CNN.

The week before the elections, NBC’s third-place cable news channel threw out its daytime formula and went all politics all the time, leaning heavily on NBC News talent like Brian Williams, Tim Russert and Andrea Mitchell.

The new approach worked, and on Election Day MSNBC garnered about a quarter of the 25- to 54-year-old viewers in primetime, a huge share increase over previous elections and the newsie’s typical take in primetime.

“That is a seismic shift in our competitive position,” general manager Dan Abrams says.

Like the voters, the viewers sent a message, and NBC brass are listening. Network is trying to keep the story going by asking NBC talent, and some of MSNBC’s primetime brand names to work the political angles during the day.

D.C.-based personalities like Matthews, Mitchell, “Hardball” correspondent David Schuster, as well as Joe Scarborough are all putting in hours in the morning in addition to their day jobs. Correspondents such as Mitchell book guests for their morning-anchor stints, in addition to their network reporting.

“Everybody’s got a day job, but if we can build a couple of hours (of political coverage) during the day, it makes the channel stronger,” NBC News senior VP Phil Griffin says.

Sharing personnel will become more the norm as the channel abandons Secaucus, N.J., to take up residence with NBC News at 30 Rockefeller Center sometime next year.

Strategy comes at a rare moment of momentum for the channel, which is ecstatic to just be competitive with CNN in a few key dayparts.

Both “Hardball With Chris Matthews” and “Countdown With Keith Olbermann” made substantial gains during October of the same period last year. “Olbermann” now regularly beats CNN’s “Paula Zahn Now” at 8 p.m. and “Hardball” has been taking out CNN’s “The Situation Room” at 5 p.m.

The channel’s recent run has some inside the network daring to believe that a raucous political season could represent the kind of news event that brings cultural relevance to a channel that has long struggled to find its niche.

Fox News Channel is in part the reason for this optimism — and not because the channel has sustained ratings declines this year.

“I’m a big believer that Fox had a very strong window that started during the Clinton years and ended when (President) Bush landed on that boat that said ‘mission accomplished,’ ” Griffin says. “The mood has changed and people are looking for a different kind of coverage.”

Yet it’s unclear if Fox will languish in an environment in which Republicans are the underdogs.

A memo from news chief John Moody to reporters posted on saying that reporters should “look for statements from Iraqi insurgents who must be thrilled at the prospect of a Dem-controlled Congress” shows that Fox is hot to find its own post-election angle.

In a heady moment, MSNBC actually beat Fox in the demo for several hours the day after Election Day, a rare feat unlikely to be soon repeated.

But it gave MSNBC confidence it can build on its momentum if it can persuade enough viewers that two years of palace intrigue heading into the 2008 general election is worth watching.

Will the political story be the story going into 2007 — or even into next week? Hurricane season is over, but the whole calculus could change with the next primetime headline.

“The test will be when the next tabloid story breaks,” says an MSNBC staffer. “Will they be able to stick with it?”

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