Alone among the four major television networks, NBC and its new parent company, Comcast, finds itself deeply in the news business. This is heroic, quixotic … or just not all that thought-through. On Monday, NBC further consolidated its news eminence by buying out its partner, Microsoft, in msnbc.com, one of the web’s leading news sites.
NBC’s strength in news, and the relative abandonment of the business by its broadcast competitors, may be as surprising to NBC as it is to everybody else in television and news. Indeed, as the weakest of the broadcast networks, NBC’s position in news might be seen as a bit of a musical chairs joke. The music stopped and everybody else had a prime-time schedule and NBC had news.
It would be hard to argue that its focus on the news business is born of its great success in it.
After a decade-long effort, NBC thrashed out a market position for MSNBC that earns it better prime-time ratings than CNN, the cable news laggard, but that is still a long way from Fox, the leader. (Perhaps NBC’s most notable move in cable news was to have gotten rid of Fox’s Roger Ailes, who ran the precursor to CNBC – thus allowing him to go to work for Rupert Murdoch and upend the business.) What’s more, of the three leading cable news channels, MSNBC is the least profitable. In CNBC, it has built the leading cable business channel; but having done that, it has long seemed bewildered about what else to do.
CNBC’s audience remains tiny and its prime-time line-up practically nonexistent. At the network evening news, there is Brian Williams, the last-man-standing network anchor, generally winning an ever-diminishing audience that has lost much of its currency with advertisers. In the morning, NBC has the Today Show, a significant earner and powerhouse, now under pressure from Good Morning America, its time-slot competitor.
For many years, industry observers saw NBC’s cable news strategy as a savvy bet on the part of NBC and its then owner, GE. It had quite aggressively followed the evolving news industry while ABC and CBS shied from it, and while News Corp segmented its network entertainment assets from its news businesses. In a sense, this was a bragging right for NBC, as much as a business strategy. Broadcast stature has long been measured – or at least once was measured – in part, by the size of your news operation. And even if everybody’s news operation (its bureaus and correspondents) was being cut to the bone – ABC and CBS have even tried to outsource their news – at least NBC, with its cable outlets, and with Brian Williams, was maintaining its news voice and brand.
It remained the last real network … or it did until its prime-time business fell apart. Then, suddenly, it was a lot more in the news business than it had surely ever intended to be. And in it, just at the point when news was being reinvented by Fox News in ways that traditional television news executives couldn’t fathom, and remade by the internet in ways that these same traditional television news executive even more surely could not fathom.
Still, in some kind of plucky, or stubborn, or no-alternative way, NBC persisted. While CNN has tried to hide from the Fox revolution, losing much of its prime-time audience and brand in the process, MSNBC has made an effort to ape it. MSNBC may be significantly less gifted at agitprop and other drive-by provocations than Fox, but at least, it is in the game – however guiltily. Indeed, MSNBC often seems most characterized by its determination to grit its teeth at having to do business in the way in which it has concluded it has to do business. We are better people than this, is often MSNBC’s tone, but, you understand, we’re in cable television.
Now, buying out Microsoft, NBC heads firmly into the internet news business: arguably, a more precarious existential predicament even than television news. This is not just doubling down, but a kind of eyes-wide-open march into the abyss. The plan is to turn the current msnbc.com, with its vast traffic, into nbcnews.com, and then, in a high-wire branding act, recast msnbc.com as a site better reflecting the network’s opposite-of-Fox theme.
In this regard, it is interesting to note that MSNBC once sought to buy the Huffington Post, the most successful native online news organization, but its parent balked at the price. The other point to make, certainly, is about the great and confounding maw so many legacy news brands have become, online. Many have built vast audiences and almost none has made any meaningful money doing it – and the price of advertising space, in the unlimited universe of internet advertising space, continues to go down. It’s all going mobile, anyway, where advertising is, grievously, even less profitable.
Yesterday, a trio of NBC News executives, NBC News President Steve Capus, MSNBC President Phil Griffin, and NBC News chief digital officer Vivian Schiller, held a news conference to try to explain themselves. These are three significant veterans of news bureaucracies, representing, as well as anyone, the news business’ past triumphs and current struggles and disappointments.
It is possible to argue – and this is what they seemed to be trying hard to argue – that NBC (and these three executives) have been handed a great opportunity. This is the team that runs the last living network news organization and now the internet is before them.
Of course, it is not possible to know what they were actually thinking. The chances are, each having taking as many blows to the head in the news business as it is possible to take and still be employed or sentient, they don’t know themselves.
Except that this is the news business and we slog on.