the next big story Cable: NBC and Microsoft race into uncharted territory in a gamble that could change the face of TV news. This, NBC insists, is not CNN.

July 15, 1996|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

MSNBC might sound like something you don't want in your Chinese food, but NBC and Microsoft are betting $420 million that you will want it on your television screen.

MSNBC is the 24-hour all-news cable channel that arrives today in 22.5 million homes. It has been called the future of network news by a number of analysts, and, given its resources and the fact that all four of the major television networks vowed to be in the 24-hour cable news business by the end of the year, that seemed like a fairly safe assessment until recently.

But, in May, ABC News abruptly reversed itself and announced that it was indefinitely postponing its plans for an all-news cable channel, and CBS News now says it sees no need for another cable news operation that duplicates what already exists on CNN.

So, is MSNBC a big deal or a big hype? And, if it is such a big deal, why are ABC and CBS pulling back? Does MSNBC look like it really could be the future of network television news or more like a replay of the multimillion-dollar pay-per-view debacle called Triplecast -- the spectacular failure by NBC to get viewers to pay for extra cable coverage of the 1992 Olympics?

"Is MSNBC a big deal? Absolutely. It's a very, very big deal. These are probably the two largest companies launching a new network in the history of television," said Dr. Douglas Gomery, a University of Maryland media economist who writes "The Economics of Television" column for the American Journalism Review.

"Is it a big gamble? You betcha. None of us knows what the new media world is going to look like, but we do know there is no sure thing in it. MSNBC is the biggest gamble in television news since the founding of CNN 15 years ago."

Mark Harrington, the vice president and general manager of MSNBC, acknowledges the risk and uncertainty, but says there is one thing he can guarantee those who tune in to his channel: They will not see a clone of CNN.

"We are not going to do the 'newswheel,' " he said, referring to the formula used by CNN and many radio stations, with certain kinds of stories grouped together at certain times on the hour and repeated throughout the day.

"We'll pick the best three, four or five stories a day and focus on them -- not the rat-a-tat-tat of CNN or 'Headline News,' " explained Bob Epstein, MSNBC's daytime executive producer.

That is about as specific as MSNBC executives were willing to get last week in regard to their programming plans for the hours of 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. weekdays: Coverage of the day's major news stories and an anchor desk featuring Jodi Applegate (from KTVN-TV in Reno), John Seigenthaler (former editor and anchorman in Nashville), John Gibson (best known for his O. J. Simpson reporting on NBC's CNBC channel) and Ed Gordon (of the Black Entertainment Television cable channel).

Things are a bit more firm on weeknights. Jane Pauley will be the host of "Time and Again," an hourlong program airing at 7 weeknights, which uses NBC News archives to look at major events of the 20th century. At 8 p.m., there's a talk show called "Internight," which will use rotating interviewers from a roster that includes Tom Brokaw, Katie Couric, Bryant Gumbel, Bob Costas and Bill Moyers.

"The News With Brian Williams," featuring the NBC News White House correspondent and heir apparent to Brokaw, will air at 9. Following Williams at 10, it's "The Site," a program to be produced for MSNBC by Ziff-Davis Publishing and will offer news and discussion about new technology.

MSNBC executives all stress technology, and there is good reason for that: Everyone in the traditional media wants to make it onto the Internet, but for most it is uncharted and confusing territory. NBC, meanwhile, through its partnership with Bill Gates, appears to be in the driver's seat of one of the biggest and sleekest vehicles on the information superhighway.

There will be some 400 employees working together in the MSNBC newsroom in Fort Lee, N.J., and the Microsoft operation on its campus in Redmond, Wash., -- linked through computers and television technology.

Viewers who want even more information than MSNBC is offering on a given story can get it by switching to computer and signing onto MSNBC on the Internet (http: //www.msnbc.com.) -- the on-line companion of the cable channel that also launches today.

NBC affiliates (like WBAL in Baltimore), and NBC-owned stations (like WRC in Washington) will have their own web pages on MSNBC on the Internet, as well as windows to insert local programming on MSNBC cable.

All of the various aspects of MSNBC will be coordinated so the considerable resources of NBC News -- its 25 bureaus, 1,200 journalists, 215 affiliate stations and Super Channel in Europe -- will be brought to bear on providing better and more in-depth information than can be found anywhere else on cable or the Internet for events ranging from the Olympics to the national political conventions.

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