Third place network pulling in more viewers

“Are any of CNN’s on-air personalities ever having any fun?”

In barking out that question, Phil Griffin, the NBC News executive in charge of MSNBC, practically leaps out of his chair, intent on making the point that his network may be gaining on CNN for an oddball reason: Griffin provokes his star personalities — led by Keith Olbermann — to at least look as if they’re having a good time, even when they’re voicing strong opinions and tangling with their guests.

Griffin is not confusing MSNBC with the Ringling Bros. Circus, but, looking for a leg up on his all-news rivals, he says, “I want our hosts to be witty and clever, colorful and exciting.”

MSNBC needs to keep tinkering with the on-air formula, because the network is still an also-ran, lodged in third place behind the dominant Fox News Channel and steady No. 2 CNN.

But glomming onto the hottest race for U.S. president in decades, MSNBC is pulling in more viewers than at any other time since the few months after 9/11. (CNN has also made significant gains due to the election, while Fox News has benefited the least of the three.)

Griffin says more viewers are watching MSNBC at least in part because of its beefed-up political coverage. Olbermann and another popular nightly anchor, Chris Matthews, are steeped in politics, and the network draws regularly on such knowledgeable political pontificators as “NBC Nightly News” anchor Brian Williams, “Meet the Press” host Tim Russert, NBC White House correspondent David Gregory and NBC News correspondent Andrea Mitchell.

Viewers will see a lot more of this cross-fertilization between the on-air talent of NBC and MSNBC, because both divisions are now in the same Manhattan building at 30 Rockefeller Plaza.

“Being separated didn’t make any sense,” Griffin says. When MSNBC opened for business in 1996, it settled in to a complex owned by NBC located in Secaucus, N.J., despite the fact NBC News made its home in the heart of midtown Manhattan.

Three months ago, the moving vans hauled MSNBC from Secaucus to 30 Rock and, Griffin says, “now we’re feeding off the energy of New York City.”

The new location is a plus, and following the midterm elections of 2006, MSNBC saw potential Nielsen gold in becoming the place to go for analysis of the bloody battles taking place in the political arena, particularly since the race for president was wide open in both parties.

The strategy appears to be working. Griffin cites three things that make him happy: the ramped-up political coverage, the rising popularity of Olbermann (weeknights from 8 to 9) and the heavy use of repeats of docu hours from “Dateline NBC.”

Taken together, the three ingredients acted like an adrenaline shot to MSNBC’s ratings in calendar 2007. The network ballooned by 32% in total viewers year to year in primetime, compared with only modest gains by Fox News (4%) and CNN (2%) for the same period.

When the presidential horse race heated up dramatically in January, both MSNBC and CNN, which also touts its on-air army of political experts, chalked up near-record primetime increases. CNN soared by 42% in total viewers, and MSNBC rocketed by 37%. Fox News was up by only 9%, but it has nothing to worry about: At an average of 1.76 million viewers, it wound up with 35% more primetime viewers in January than second-place CNN (1.15 million). Further down in the pecking order wasMSNBC and its average of 744,000.

What stands out for Jerry McKenna, VP of programming for Cable One, a top-10 cable operator, is that each of the all-news networks is beginning to develop its own distinct identity. “CNN is the network I go to for facts, hard news and information,” McKenna says. “Fox News is the most conservative of the three. And MSNBC is intentionally veering to the liberal side.”

Griffin agrees with McKenna on CNN and Fox News, but says it’s too simplistic to say that MSNBC is the left-wing answer to Fox News’ rightward tilt.

“Nobody on MSNBC is pitching a particular ideology,” Griffin says. Olbermann skewers the Bush Administration with wide-eyed glee just about every night, but he’s also critical of the Democrats in Congress.

Matthews, who’s perceived as a liberal, has poured so much scorn on Sen. Hillary Clinton during the campaign that some of her supporters picketed “Hardball” last month.

And two of MSNBC’s regular hosts, Tucker Carlson at 6 p.m. and Joe Scarborough, the former congressman who replaced Don Imus in the morning last year, are both card-carrying conservatives.

But Griffin is not complaining about Olbermann’s anti-Bush tirades, because Bush’s record-low poll ratings have given Olbermann a newfound popularity with the mass audience that shares his worldview.

And that mass audience has translated into healthy profits for MSNBC since the 24/7 network severed its 50/50 partnership with Microsoft late in 2005, says Derek Baine, cable analyst for SNL Kagan. (As part of the severance deal, Microsoft retained its 50% stake in MSNBC.com.)

MSNBC spends about $150 million a year in programming costs, says Kagan, but with the dual revenue stream of advertising dollars and fees from cable operators and satcasters, it has a projected cash flow this year of $122 million.

“With its smart use of NBC’s political experts, MSNBC has found its voice,” says Lynne Buening, head of programming for the RCN Corp., which sells bundles of cable networks to more than 400,000 customers.

And Buening is convinced that the network will keep its Nielsen momentum going throughout the year, because “we’re seeing unprecedented history in the making with this election. You can bet that people will stay interested, and want to follow all the twists and turns.”

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