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Last updated on April 17, 2014 at 9:33 EDT

MSNBC is on the Rise

July 2, 2008

NEW YORK — Phil Griffin, the NBC News executive who oversees MSNBC, is a coiled mass of energy who needs little provocation to do battle. Now he’s got something to fight for.

MSNBC is a player in the cable news competition in a way it hasn’t been before. The surge in viewership created by the presidential campaign has benefited MSNBC more than Fox News Channel or CNN, and Griffin is pushing to consolidate those gains.

Round-the-clock political talk is planned for the Democratic and Republican national conventions later this summer. Chris Matthews and Keith Olbermann will be the prime-time ringmasters working on outdoor sets in St. Paul and Denver, as opposed to booths in the convention halls. Joe Scarborough’s “Morning Joe” will likely originate from a diner.

Brian Williams, Tom Brokaw, David Gregory and Andrea Mitchell — NBC News stars who once kept MSNBC at arm’s length — will all play prominent roles.

MSNBC is competing in the sloganeering game, too. While CNN claims “the best political team on television” and Fox is “America’s election headquarters,” MSNBC is the “place for politics.”

MSNBC specifically targets new viewers to cable news, in the 25- to-54-year-old demographic most attractive to advertisers. Fox and CNN have wider leads when all viewers are counted, but MSNBC is competitive among the younger viewers.

During the first three weeks of June, MSNBC’s prime-time weeknight audience was up 85 percent over last year within that group, according to Nielsen Media Research. CNN was up 29 percent and Fox was down 1 percent during the same period. MSNBC was within striking distance, fewer than 10,000 viewers on average, of second- place CNN.

Advertisers have taken notice of MSNBC’s gains, said Andy Donchin, an analyst for the media buying firm Carat USA.

“They’re not at CNN and Fox’s level yet,” Donchin said. “But I think they’ve made greater inroads. They’ve gotten their act together a bit and found a formula that works for them.”

For the first time, MSNBC has everyone at NBC News behind the network and believing in it, Griffin said. That’s partly explained by the move of MSNBC’s studios from Secaucus, N.J., to NBC’s headquarters at Rockefeller Center in New York.

The late Tim Russert played a key role in signaling an acceptance of MSNBC by starting to make more appearances there a year or two ago, Griffin said. That wasn’t necessarily a priority at NBC News during years when MSNBC seemed without a direction.

“There was a sensibility here that 30 Rock was the major leagues,” he said. “Cable is fine, but it was sort of kids playing in Secaucus. I think everyone knows that MSNBC is a player and a platform for NBC News editorially and financially.”

Management erred in years past by trying to be all things to all people, he said. Now MSNBC is “a little smarter, a little edgier, a little more honest.”

And maybe a little more liberal. Griffin resists the idea that MSNBC is positioning itself as the go-to network for the left, in much the same way as Fox is the network of choice for many conservatives. Still, its breakout show is hosted by the virulently anti-administration Olbermann, who’s made no secret of his admiration for Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama.

CNN plays to that image with an advertising campaign that portrays itself as the “independent thinker.”

“The difference I see in MSNBC is that it used to cling to the idea of ‘just the facts, ma’am’ for all of its broadcasts,” said veteran news executive Richard Wald, now a Columbia University professor. “Now it’s gotten into much more edge and a much more aggressive kind of talk rather than reporting.”

That hasn’t been a completely smooth transition. Hillary Clinton’s campaign was not happy with Matthews and Olbermann for some of their commentary, and the White House delivered a broadside against Olbermann. The old-school Brokaw has also pushed back against Olbermann on the air for some remarks he thought went too far.

It’s a sensible business decision, Wald said. He compared cable television today to radio in the years after television took over. To survive, radio stations needed to appeal to different niches of the listenership.

“The problem is that it narrows the possibility of understanding something,” he said. “What you lose as you become niche-ified, if that’s a word, is serendipity. You can watch one of these programs and never be surprised by something that you didn’t know before.”

Another concern: Nov. 5, 2008.

This election will end. That will be a problem for all of the cable news networks heavily covering the campaign, but more so for an organization promising 20 hours of live political coverage each day during the conventions (plus four hours of repeats in the middle of the night).

Griffin said there will still be a great deal of interest as a new administration takes over government.

He also sees a difference between now and past big news events that caused a bump in viewership that ended when the story ended. MSNBC’s strong June ratings, during a relative lull in the campaign, proves his point, he said.

“We have a loyal audience,” he said. “We never had a loyal audience.”