Sunday, July 03, 2005

Wasted opportunity / looming problem

By all rights, MSNBC should own cable news. They have the marvelous combination of vast resources and low marginal costs. NBC News already has the reporters and producers on staff. Using them on MSNBC is much cheaper than the costs faced by CNN or FNC who have to support their infrastructure with only a cable audience. ISTM that MSNBC should be able to create a quality line-up, draw a large quality audience, and laugh all the way to the bank.

Instead they are mired in third (sometimes fourth place) with a line up that echoes and mimics the Fox/CNN products.

It's a puzzle. Olbermann and Carlson are distinctive personalities. That should be a plus. Their shows are sometimes funny, sometimes insightful. But both shows are fast-paced, knowing, smirky and crowded. Consequently, they are superficial even when they are entertaining. That is, they are distinctive in a way that does nothing to leverage the advantages they should have by being part of NBC.

It is possible that there simply is not a cable audience for quality news programs. Maybe those who want depth go to the internet because TV cannot compete. It probably is true that words on a screen will always do a better job at going deeper than will words spoken by a reporter. A long television story has fewer words than a short magazine piece. Yet we can read the article faster than a reporter can speak her story. Churchill warned that the ear was only one-tenth as powerful as the eye and so, speakers should never attempt the sort of intricate, nuanced arguments possible in a newspaper column.

While all that is true, I am left with an undeniable fact. GE, under Jack Welch and now Jeffrey Immelt, is usually intolerant of excuses that rely on the inevitability of failure due to the unchangeable nature of the marketplace. That just isn't the GE Way of legend, HBS case studies, and Fortune cover stories.

Whatever happened to '#1 or #2' in every market?

MSNBC's failure is a looming problem for NBC and GE. The audience for broadcast news is falling which means that big NBC News infrastructure is becoming a drag on profits. Ideally, MSNBC would pick up the slack by growing its audience and revenue. If they do not do so, GE will have two white elephants on their hands.

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