The debacle inside NBC and MSNBC that has resulted in Keith Olbermann and Chris Matthews dropping their election coverage anchor hats for those of commentators comes as a result of colossal brand mismanagement at the network.
MSNBC has climbed in ratings and ad revenue chiefly, I believe, because it has clarified its brand as a foil to the more conservative Fox News. Watching MSNBC’s prime-time programs, Countdown with Keith Olbermann, as well as Dan Abrams recently defunct show, leaves no room for interpreting the obvious strategy to counter-program The O’Reilly Factor and Hannity & Colmes.
But here is the problem. In a year that gives us a historic election with a huge appetite for political yack-fest programming, and even before this year, MSNBC has become a huge outlet for NBC news reporters. And then there is the brand association—MSNBC and NBC. Even the network name is an extension of the NBC brand. There isn’t enough air-time on NBC for the news division to exercise its news and commentary muscles. So, MSNBC has become a kind of second home for NBC anchors and reporters like David Gregory, Williams, Brokaw, David Schuster and before his tragic death, Tim Russert.
There had been chants on the floor of the Republican National Convention last week of “NBC…NBC…NBC,” jeers that affirmed the complaints of the McCain campaign and the Republican National Committee that the network was biased toward the Obama-Biden ticket. That seems to have been the straw that broke the camel’s back for NBC heavyweights like Tom Brokaw and Brian Williams.
Fox has the advantage of brand clarity in this debate because it is unmistakably conservative, from obvious right-leaning anchors like Brit Hume to Republican party junk-yard dogs like Sean Hannity. NBC, on the other hand, agree or not, puts itself out there as independent. Brian Williams, Brokaw, Gregory and others could claim, whether they were jeered by Republicans or not, that they had no bias to either party or candidate. When they appeared as flankers to Olbermann, that license to claim independence evaporated.
But this year more than any other, the lines between NBC and MSNBC have become indistinguishable as Olbermann especially has become ever more partisan. It was a colossal mistake in terms of good brand management to have Olbermann anchor election or convention coverage.
All this rancor, which is red meat to Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity (who have been carping at NBC for months over this issue), could have been avoided has NBC management simply put Olbermann and Matthews in commentator chairs from the start. How on earth could the network green-light Olbermann as an anchor during the Republican convention when he delivers a nightly tirade against President Bush and the McCain campaign.
Here are some winners and losers in all this:
NBC brand: Management, especially MSNBC President Phil Griffin and NBC News president Steve Capus, should suffer demotion or worse for truly awful decision-making and management of the network’s brand image and integrity.
Chris Matthews: The host of Hardball occasionally lets his old-school love of politics and political oratory muddle and color his commentary. His remark that Obama’s speech “sent a chill up his leg,” will forever be his scarlet letter of bias. In truth, Matthews may be liberal, but his remark had more to do with his sappy love of great speech-making than the speech-giver himself. Matthews views himself as NBC’s heir to Tim Russert on election night. But that isn’t going to happen.
Winners: Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity: Upon hearing Olbermann was moved aside, I could hear the saliva dripping from their teeth all the way from New York to Michigan where I am writing from. Olbermann taunts these guys nightly, and has long held himself on a higher journalistic plane to the point of aping Edward R. Murrow in his special commentaries. Their producers are going to have to call in a medical team to keep their cheeks from breaking from all the out-of- control grinning.
The McCain Campaign: It is as if NBC management took dictation from McCain/Palin water-carrier Steve Schmidt. The campaign has been playing the victim card for months, claiming that the media had been unfair to McCain and now the new vp candidate. NBC’s awful management of the situation gives the McCain campaign additional license to beat up any media in the next two months.