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."
| 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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