MSNBC opens daytime hours for breaking news; Brian Williams will helm

If you want to know the future look of MSNBC, take a look at its past.

The network's selling points when it launched in 1996 was the power of NBC News on cable and an up-and-coming anchor named Brian Williams.

Nearly 20 years later, Williams will be at the forefront of an effort to make the channel a destination when news happens in daytime. NBC News on-air correspondents, a less frequent presence on MSNBC in recent years as the channel added more politically progressive talking heads, will play a larger role again.

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NBC News and MSNBC Chairman Andy Lack cleared a path for the strategic shift this week with the cancellation of three daytime programs: "The Cycle," "Now With Alex Wagner" and "The Ed Show."

The move opens up the daytime hours for continuing breaking news coverage, where Williams will be at the helm. MSNBC will be the platform for the former "NBC Nightly News" anchor's reentry to TV news after he served a six-month suspension for false statements he made about his experience reporting on the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq.

The move is aimed at making MSNBC competitive in the ratings after it fell well behind CNN among the audience of 25- to 54-year-old viewers that advertisers want to reach with news programming. In July, CNN more than doubled MSNBC's daytime audience of 48,000 viewers in the demographic and Fox News Channel more than tripled it.

But it also plays into the strength of NBC's deposed evening anchor, who gets a second chance after disgracing the news division and nearly torpedoing an accomplished television career.

The recent controversy that led to Williams' suspension and demotion this year had current and former colleagues chattering about his alleged aversion to reporting from the field. But there has never been any doubt expressed over his ability to handle live, continuing coverage of a breaking story for hours at a time in a studio.

"This is tailor-made for him," said Jonathan Klein, a veteran TV news executive and former president of CNN. "Being the ringmaster of aggressive news coverage is exactly what he's great at. They are not talking about giving him a late-night interview show. They are not having him be a comedian. They are having him do something that put him at the top of his craft."

Williams will be set up at his own anchor desk on the third floor of NBC News headquarters in New York's Rockefeller Center, across from the main MSNBC set used for such shows as "Morning Joe" and "Newsnation With Tamron Hall."

Williams, who isn't likely to show up on the air until September, will be MSNBC's go-to anchor from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. on the East Coast. "Meet the Press" moderator and NBC News political director Chuck Todd will have a daily program at 5 p.m., giving him a higher profile during the presidential campaign.

The evening lineup of politically left-of-center hosts — the Rev. Al Sharpton, Chris Matthews, Chris Hayes, Rachel Maddow and Lawrence O'Donnell — will remain intact for now, serving much as an op-ed page does in a newspaper. The ratings for those programs, with the exception of Hayes, are still competitive with CNN on some nights.

But bringing a liberal point of view to daytime programming made the channel "too repetitive," according to one NBC executive not authorized to discuss the MSNBC strategy publicly. NBC News declined to comment on the MSNBC cancellations beyond the announcement made Thursday.

MSNBC first found a distinctive voice and a larger share of cable news viewers when Keith Olbermann, then a prime-time host, fired up the liberal opposition to President George W. Bush and the war in Iraq in 2007. The historic rise of Barack Obama to the White House in 2008 solidified that audience even more, giving NBC the confidence to allow MSNBC and its progressive commentators to operate well outside of the traditional parameters of its news division.

But as President Obama's popularity leveled off, viewers fled.

"Hope was snuffed out by reality," Klein said. "When you tie your entire network strategy to an individual and an idea, you are going to live and die by the popularity of that individual and idea. They paid the price for it."

NBC News executives believe they have a window of opportunity through 2016 to put MSNBC on a new track. Over that time, news junkies are bound to be transfixed by a presidential election with no incumbent and an eclectic array of candidates. That includes a wildly unpredictable outsider in billionaire real estate mogul Donald Trump, the current leader in the Republican polls, who is capable of launching a campaign outside of the two-party system.

Despite its ratings woes, MSNBC remains a highly profitable operation thanks to the subscriber fees it takes in from cable and satellite operators. In its early days, MSNBC gave NBC News anchors and journalists added exposure, enabling it to gain an advantage on its broadcast competitors and helping to develop a deep bench of new talent. Four of the current "Today" show co-hosts, including Savannah Guthrie, came up through MSNBC.

Now NBC News franchises such as "Today," "NBC Nightly News" and "Meet the Press" are in a dogfight to retain their ratings supremacy. Getting additional exposure on MSNBC could help them again, Klein said.

"When they first went and split [NBC News and MSNBC] and let MSNBC get into liberal opinion, they had the luxury of a news brand that was riding high," he said. "Now they need to consolidate."

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