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MSNBC finally pays off at 30 Rock

NEW YORK--Steve Capus glances at the eight video feeds on the flat-screen monitors in his Rockefeller Plaza office, smiling as he spots Andrea Mitchell in a head scarf, doing a morning live shot for MSNBC.

The 46-year-old NBC News president ticks off Mitchell's contributions while covering the Iranian regime's release of an American hiker: She was on "Today," she will be on "Nightly News" that evening, and she will host her MSNBC afternoon show from Tehran. And those multiple platforms--plus the ability to share costs with a cable channel--is what he believes separates his network from CBS and ABC.

MSNBC was once an afterthought; Capus himself repeatedly turned down a request to move there until his NBC boss ordered him to do so soon after its 1996 launch. But the channel's improving fortunes have buoyed the mothership. "Nobody had any idea how important it would be to this news division," he says. "It gives us a running start. There are no nap times around here."

With its lineup of liberal firebrands, MSNBC can also be a headache that blurs the straight-news reputation of the broadcast network, especially as such stalwarts as Mitchell, Chuck Todd and Savannah Guthrie spend more time on the cable airwaves. But the channel brings in revenue, in the form of cable subscription fees, and it puts NBC in the 24/7 game. Despite recurring rumors that ABC is flirting with Bloomberg or CBS might join forces with CNN, those deals, with their inevitable complications about editorial control, never seem to get done.

The recent resignation of ABC News President David Westin, who had to cut 25 percent of his staff this year, underscores the tough sledding facing the broadcast networks in an era of declining audiences. But Capus, a genial former producer who took over the news division five years ago, says the gloom-and-doom reports don't apply to his network. In fact, senior executives say NBC, MSNBC and CNBC are on track to have their most profitable years ever, generating about three-quarters of a billion dollars in combined profits. Roughly a third of that comes from MSNBC.

But getting there hasn't been a cakewalk. Capus, who came to the president's job with limited management experience, had to slice 18 percent from the leanest of the Big Three network staffs.

"It's gut-wrenching," he says. "I grew up inside this organization." Each dismissal, says the 18-year NBC veteran, "is more than a name on a sheet from human resources. You know these people, you know their families." But, he says, "I do not ever apologize for running this organization as a business." Capus has added back 5 percent of the positions through hiring this year.

NBC chief executive Jeff Zucker, who tapped Capus as a supervising producer when he was running "Today" in the early 1990s, says that "Steve is tough and demanding but also has a very soft, human side to him. There's always a concern that you can't be objective about people because you grew up there. But he's made a lot of tough calls along the way."

Capus concedes that MSNBC's lefty lineup at night--Ed Schultz, Chris Matthews, Keith Olbermann, Rachel Maddow and, as of next week, Lawrence O'Donnell--raises questions about NBC. But cable is "narrowcasting," he says, and "I think the audience gets it, pure and simple."

Fox News, he adds, is "trying to brand us" as a liberal broadcast network because of MSNBC. "It's a classic political tactic--they don't like Keith Olbermann, they're going to come after us. It's annoying."

Fox Executive Vice President Brian Lewis responds that "NBC, and especially MSNBC, is not even a blip on our radar screen. We don't care what they do. Capus must be confusing us with CNN" as a close competitor. (Fox host Bill O'Reilly, for his part, regularly describes NBC as a left-wing network, at one point slamming "Capus and his character assassins.")

No one is suggesting that Brian Williams's newscast has suddenly become biased. But with MSNBC stars such as Matthews appearing on NBC programs--and with the cable channel having left New Jersey and settled in at 30 Rock--a blurred identity is certainly a possibility.
Fox still dominates the cable news race, but MSNBC now regularly beats CNN in prime time, and Joe Scarborough's "Morning Joe" has become the most talked-about breakfast show. Capus attributes the turnaround to the channel branding itself "the place for politics," giving it a long-sought focus after so many short-lived programs with the likes of Alan Keyes, Phil Donahue and John Hockenberry.

For its first 11 years, "MSNBC didn't have its act together," Zucker says. "Only in the last three years has MSNBC emerged as a serious network. ....

"It's too easy for people to say, 'Oh, the reason they're better than CBS and ABC is because they have MSNBC.' Is it one of the reasons? Of course. Is it the only reason? Not even close."
Zucker has made his share of mistakes with the network, most notably moving Jay Leno to prime time and giving the "Tonight" show to Conan O'Brien, which became an embarrassing fiasco. But as a career newsman, he has also devoted special attention to the care and feeding of NBC News.

The network also benefits from its financial channel, CNBC, with appearances by such stars as Erin Burnett and Maria Bartiromo, and from its minority stake in the Weather Channel, where Al Roker has a show. And MSNBC.com has become one of the most popular news Web sites.

Andrew Heyward, a former CBS News president who has consulted for NBC in the past, says having a cable outlet "is very important for brand extension, but also as a recruitment tool." NBC, for instance, lured Martin Bashir from ABC's "Nightline" in part by giving him an afternoon show, announced last week, on MSNBC.

Heyward says CBS and ABC need to find new partnerships, perhaps with local stations or newspapers. "Just relying on their existing programming poses really dire challenges."

A Temple University graduate, Capus got his start as a producer at Philadelphia's WCAU-TV, where he was paired with the new South Jersey reporter, Brian Williams. He wound up as executive producer of Williams's MSNBC newscast and then of "Nightly News," which didn't hurt his bid for a top management spot. Capus threw a pizza party last week to celebrate Williams winning 52 straight weeks in the ratings. "Nightly" has averaged 8.55 million viewers, to 7.55 million for Diane Sawyer's broadcast and 5.71 million for Katie Couric's program.

NBC's other signature newscasts, "Today"and "Meet the Press," were in first place when Capus took over and remain atop the ratings, despite the death of Tim Russert and Couric's defection to CBS. There has been some industry chatter about whether Couric might be lured to her old network when her CBS contract expires next year.

"How can you not at least think about it?" Capus says of the prospect of Couric's return. While he calls the "CBS Evening News" a "good broadcast," Capus adds that every television journalist needs the right platform--and in Couric's case, "you have to think long and hard, what would that be?"

NBC, like every network, is trying to peddle more of its wares online (CBS's "60 Minutes" will launch a Web show with original content next week called "Overtime"). Capus notes that NBC's Ann Curry has more than 1 million followers on Twitter. Williams, who has dissed Twitter as a waste of time, finally joined the site last week (he has 4,000 followers but has yet to tweet).

But a long shadow hangs over the news division. Comcast's acquisition of the network from General Electric, which is expected to be completed by year's end, could bring major changes in leadership and resources. In his limited conversations with Comcast executives, Capus says, "they are very much in that mode of 'what can we do to help?' You want to hear that."

One plus for the Philadelphia-area native: the cable giant owns the Flyers and the 76ers. Capus, who keeps Flyers photos on his office wall, bumped into Brian Roberts, Comcast's chief executive, at a game during the hockey playoffs.

Did they huddle about NBC's future?

"We talked about whether the Flyers could score on the power play," Capus says.

Howard Kurtz also works for CNN and hosts its weekly media program, "Reliable Sources."

By Howard Kurtz  | September 19, 2010; 10:00 PM ET
Categories:  Latest stories, Television, Top story  | Tags:  Andrea Mitchell, Ann Curry, Bill O'Reilly, Brian Williams, Fox, Jeff Zucker, MSNBC, NBC, Steve Capus, television  
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Comments

Now that is one hard hitting report on MSNBC...such tough questions. With all those lib/dem firebrands, how could anyone surmise that NBC is a liberal network, especially Capus and Zucker.

Posted by: d1carter | September 19, 2010 11:13 PM | Report abuse

Don't you have to worry that the network becomes Philadelphia-centric? Or maybe they should unleash Andrea to take on the likes of Tate, Rizzo, or Darlin' Arlen from her early years in broadcasting. Jeesh, where has the time gone?

Posted by: Talltimber41 | September 19, 2010 11:45 PM | Report abuse

Brian Williams not biased? Wasn't Brian the guy BOWING to Obama???

Posted by: beecheery | September 20, 2010 3:02 AM | Report abuse

glad it is out in the open that Zucker "tapped" a mid-20-something as a producer and made him a chief with "limited" network experience. In case we missed the Alpha male meme, there are even sports analogies.
And where is a women manager/decision-maker that either of them has advanced with "limited" experience? Women have to prove their mettle in the face of these empowered modern-day sexist men who group together for power and throw off all but token female empowerment.
Nice to see that nobody thinks Capus earned his striped but was simply helped into the boat, as another man's workplace BFF.
Noted. Ladies, where do you want to get your news? From these sexist pigs?

Posted by: FloridaChick | September 20, 2010 6:52 AM | Report abuse

Personally, I can't watch msnbc. It is just too slanted to the left. It's just laughable anyone could take them as a legitimate news source. Same with nbc and cnbc.

Watch the FOX networks if you want the truth.

bye bye democrats

Posted by: COOLCHILLY | September 20, 2010 7:04 AM | Report abuse

RE: "It's a classic political tactic--they (Fox) don't like Keith Olbermann, they're going to come after us. It's annoying."

Earth to Capus: Most viewers don't like KO..that's why you are so far behind in the ratings. KO is arrogant and elitist.

Posted by: tbenintende | September 20, 2010 7:23 AM | Report abuse

Fox is not a credible news org, but rather a propaganda machine - evidenced by Murdoch's recent $1,000,000 contribution to the Republican Party.

Posted by: angie12106 | September 20, 2010 7:54 AM | Report abuse

Personally, I cannot watch Fox News. It's slanted too far to the right. I can't believe anyone could take them as a legitimate news source. I'm very happy that I can watch a cable news channel without having the urge to throw my shoe at the TV. Thank you NBC for the lineup on MSNBC and the new show with Lawrence O'Donnell.

Posted by: phansen1 | September 20, 2010 8:17 AM | Report abuse

COOLCHILLY recently wrote: "Watch the FOX Networks if you want the truth."

His Holiness the Dalai Lama once wrote: "Believe those who are seeking the truth. Doubt those who have found it."

My money's on the Tibetan.

Posted by: greggwiggins | September 20, 2010 8:55 AM | Report abuse

I guess in Howard's book "pays off" has nothing to do with anyone actually watching. MSNBC is the most biased of all the broadcasts and is more of the same so they have done nothing to differentiate their product. How is watching them any different from NBC, CBS, ABC, CNN, Headline News, etc.? They product the same opinion presented as news/fact and it has no appeal to the viewers. Their nightly audience could fit in a dive of a bar.

Posted by: slainte1 | September 20, 2010 9:00 AM | Report abuse

You have neglected the impact of Morning JOe. Because of that program more people are meeting a wider range of thinking people. If that show doesn't make a political junky out of you I feel sorry for you. What do you do to have a decent political discussion?

Posted by: MarjorieTLee | September 20, 2010 9:19 AM | Report abuse

FOX "News" is arrogant and elitist.

Posted by: cllr | September 20, 2010 9:31 AM | Report abuse

To all those on the WaPo message boards who love to tout FOX New's ratings: So what?! Tell me, does the fact that FOX has the highest cable news ratings imbue that network with any claim to being "right" about anything (pun intended)? According to the ratings, at peak viewing times, there are no more than about 1.5 million Americans out of a population of over 300 million watching FOX News. For the mathematically challenged, that's less than .5 percent of the population of the country. All these ratings mean is that the older, white conservatives demographic is much more inclined to watch cable "news" than the rest of the country, especially if it feeds into their entrenched bigotries. Again....so what?!

Posted by: bienefes | September 20, 2010 9:35 AM | Report abuse

"Most viewers don't like KO..that's why you are so far behind in the ratings. KO is arrogant and elitist."

Most viewers don't like the kindly, mild-mannered Bill O'Reilly either. I almost added "avuncular," but when addressing a Fox News viewer, I find that four-syllable words are risky.

Posted by: mattintx | September 20, 2010 9:40 AM | Report abuse

I've watched NBC Nightly News for 20+ years, and recently I've detected a more bias leaning in what they're reporting, and how it's being covered.
It's a shame to watch, and I'm thinking seriously of not watching it at all.

Posted by: mtpeaks | September 20, 2010 10:53 AM | Report abuse

I suppose Howie wants everyone to watch Fox news. People watch programs that appeal to their own values, and that speaks volumes about the kind of people who watch Fox. I suspect it's mostly angry, old, white people watching Fox. Of course, some of the programs on MSNBC are biased. And Fox isn't? Fox is a foreign owned entity that is a propaganda machine for the right-wing Republicans.

Posted by: lddoyle2002 | September 20, 2010 10:55 AM | Report abuse

Nobody could watch MS-NBC on a regular basis and come away with the idea that it is a "liberal" station in the way that Fox News is demonstrably a "conservative" station. Maddow and Olbermann are classic moderates: they only seem liberal because the rest of American programming has gone so far to the right. In Europe, they wouldn't raise an eyebrow.

It is good to have one media outlet giving us the unvarnished truth.

Posted by: jeff9741 | September 20, 2010 11:11 AM | Report abuse

Gosh, you know what I would love to see? A news channel that reports the news. Not a channel purporting to be news but telling us events of the day from a slanted perspective. Not a channel with twelve different personalities each yelling at me from a different corner. Just a news channel, telling me the news. And when there isn't news, don't tell it to me again; just sit there and smile until more news happens.

Is that too much to ask?

Posted by: Elnok | September 20, 2010 11:15 AM | Report abuse

What a double standard! Howie's always defending FOX saying people can tell the difference between their news people and commentators on the SAME channel. Yet he's concerned that people will equate NBC and MSNBC? And MSNBC isn't even close to FOX in terms of distortion. Some times I think MSNBC should copy FOX (aka GOPTV) and be completely blatant about their leanings.

Posted by: PHL10 | September 20, 2010 11:22 AM | Report abuse

NewsBusters: NBC News Prez Whines That FOX News Is 'Trying to Brand Us' As Liberals Because of the Radical MSNBC Lineup
http://newsbusters.org/blogs/tim-graham/2010/09/20/nbc-news-prez-whines-fox-news-trying-brand-us-liberals-because-radical-m

Posted by: StewartIII | September 20, 2010 11:52 AM | Report abuse

Fox News is a vomitfest of people who read and regurgitate republican talking points. No one on the network thinks for themselve and neither do their viewers. MSNBC, while definitely on the left, at least get their facts straight and if they don't, they correct themselves. I'm disturbed that they've given Lawrence O'Donnell a show. He's good as a fill in but I doubt he can carry an hour. I'd much prefer to see them give Cenk Uygur his own show. I was not familiar with him, but he really know how to get the right wing tangled in their own rhetoric.

Posted by: blarsen1 | September 20, 2010 1:14 PM | Report abuse

This column and discussion is rather silly. It's laughable that MSNBC is even being discussed as a news outlet.

Posted by: hsanders1 | September 20, 2010 1:37 PM | Report abuse

ChickaBOOMer| MSNBC: The Little Engine That Could
http://chickaboomer.blogspot.com/2010/09/msnbc-little-engine-that-coule.html

Posted by: StewartIII | September 20, 2010 4:21 PM | Report abuse

Roberts thinks it is a wise business plan to buy a broadcast network at a time when broadcast market share is way down and heading to zero. In 20 years, or less, everything will arrive over the Internet. Result: end of CATV (Community Antenna Television) and broadcast networks.

Posted by: BlueTwo1 | September 20, 2010 5:51 PM | Report abuse

There's a lot of spinning going on in this interview. How can MSNBC generate $250 million in profits, when hardly anyone is watching? Or was that because of the 2010 Winter Olympics, when MSNBC televised many of the hockey matches?

As for bias, Joe Scarborough is the only non-lefty in the MSNBC lineup, and he has publicly referred to the liberal bias at that network.

As for CNBC, I don't understand why its significance was downplayed. It has some of the very best reporters on TV, even though some have already been hired away by the competition.

Posted by: JBaustian | September 21, 2010 12:20 PM | Report abuse

As long as Fox "News" is slinging GOP-generated talking points as "fact," some reality-based reporting from MSNBC is necessary.

Olbermann's & Maddow's shows should be seen by all, especially conservatives who actually believe Fox to be a genuine source of information.

Posted by: dan122 | September 24, 2010 2:46 PM | Report abuse

MSNBC has only gotten its act together in the past three years? So syas Jeff Zucker. That's the most ridiculous statement I've heard. Prior to the last three years MSNBC was a serious cable news outlet and my first choice. Now, it's just a propaganda outlet. Good riddance Zucker. Hopefully, Comcast will clean house at MSNBC and return it to its former prominence.

Posted by: Steve851 | September 26, 2010 9:07 AM | Report abuse

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