Rumors of an impending move to Manhattan have increased in recent weeks as media analysts speculate as to why the network may pull out of its Jersey base.
MSNBC born with innovation, followed by ratings frustration
MSNBC was founded in 1996 as a joint enterprise of Microsoft and NBC, hence the amalgamated name. The idea behind the partnership was to combine the news resources of NBC with the technology of Microsoft to create an integrated news service on the Microsoft Network and cable television. After briefly broadcasting from studios in Fort Lee in the summer and fall of 1996, MSNBC signed a ten-year lease in Secaucus, with news broadcasts emanating from the Secaucus site since November of that year.
The initial goals of the network, which included attracting a younger, more technologically engaged audience, were not immediately realized. While MSNBC cable is currently America's third most-watched cable news channel, it trails far behind Fox News and CNN, despite the notoriety of certain shows such as Hardball with Chris Matthews and Countdown with Keith Olbermann.
A recent leadership shakeup at MSNBC has attempted to address the ratings issue, among others. Dan Abrams, the 40-year-old chief legal correspondent of NBC News, was named general manager of MSNBC in June 2006. Abrams now runs the network from Secaucus, but the executive in overall charge of the network is NBC News senior vice president Phil Griffin, 49. Griffin continues to oversee NBC's Today program, and is based at NBC's headquarters in New York.
The geographical division of the new leadership has helped fuel the rumors that NBC will close the Secaucus site and consolidate broadcast operations in Manhattan. In an earlier interview, Steve Capus, the president of NBC News, stated that such as move would not be made without serious consideration.
"Closing Secaucus, if we get to that point, is a long way down the road," Capus said.
Calls to officials at MSNBC seeking comment were not returned.
Nearby Jersey option possible
Brian Stelter is the editor of TVNewser, a blog about TV news that is featured on the popular website Mediabistro. Stelter pointed out that numerous changes might be on MSNBC's horizon.
"The move may come down to the fact that NBC is not in a good financial state," Stelter said. "They are pretty much the fourth place TV network in prime time. Frequently pressures in prime time will affect the news operations, much to the chagrin of the news people. The news division is clearly being squeezed, including MSNBC. The number of $150 million for budget cutbacks across the network has been used."
Stelter noted one possible option that would leave MSNBC with some presence in the Garden State.
"One theory that I'm hearing that would make a lot of sense would move some MSNBC employees to NBC's main headquarters at 30 Rockefeller Plaza in Manhattan, and some to Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, where CNBC is now. MSNBC has an outstanding graphics department. Maybe that department would work better at 30 Rock, where they can work more closely together with NBC. I've also noticed that when I visited CNBC in Englewood Cliffs recently, there is a lot of empty space waiting to be filled. It would make a lot of sense to consolidate the two networks in some way."
Staff cutbacks next?
Porter Bibb is no stranger to the media scene. A managing partner in Mediatech Capital Partners, Bibb has more than 40 years experience as a senior investment banker specializing in media, entertainment and technology ventures. He was also the first publisher of Rolling Stone magazine, a former White House correspondent for Newsweek magazine, and a lifelong friend of American literary icon Hunter S. Thompson.
In his mind, Bibb is not surprised by the rumors.
"MSNBC, like CNBC, is costing NBC a lot of money," he said. "It's an indulgence that probably is never going to pay off. A move to 30 Rock makes a lot of sense. Neither MSNBC nor CNBC have really ever found their niche, and NBC itself is in kind of a black hole right now. Candidly, folding MSNBC into Englewood Cliffs makes even more sense than bringing them into New York. But if they are going to bring them into 30 Rock, then they are really downsizing MSNBC."
Regarding the near future of MSNBC and its employees, Brian Stelter reflected on the uncertain identity of the network as a whole.
"It's unclear whether NBC knows what the future of MSNBC really is," he said. "In public, NBC executives point to the promotions of Abrams and Griffin to demonstrate their clear commitment to the network. But they can only survive for so many years doing what they are doing right now. They tried it for ten years. I would be shocked if they kept trying the same thing for ten more years. I wonder if this is part of a larger shift in what the channel is. They may run more documentaries, because they seem to be getting better ratings, and it seems to be more cost effective."
Whether this prospective shift means impending layoffs at MSNBC has yet to be determined, according to Stelter.
"I think we'll definitely see a realignment across the board," he said. "When I've talked to NBC executives, they say that there has been no decision and that they haven't reached a conclusion yet. It will be interesting to see in five years if MSNBC is what it was in 2006. I don't think that it will be."