The 40-Year-Old Virgin Executive
If NBC's selection of Dan Abrams, an on-air anchor, as the new day-to-day boss of MSNBC left employees of that all-news cable channel gasping in shock — and it did — the next steps in the reshaping of the long-struggling network are likely to generate at least a few low whistles of surprise.
Mr. Abrams, in an interview at the MSNBC headquarters in Secaucus, N.J., acknowledged that he was still in the learning stages of his new job. At the age of 40, he's taking his first management post in television, where he has worked as a legal analyst and news anchor. While steering away from suggestions that a widespread overhaul of MSNBC is imminent, he did suggest that he would push right away for more breaking news coverage during the channel's daytime hours.
But there are bigger changes coming to MSNBC, especially in prime time, where the network will apparently be dropping some of its talk-show lineup in favor of more taped reports. That change is likely to take place as soon as the next couple of months. "I think we're going to have some program changes this summer," Steve Capus, the president of NBC News, said in a telephone interview. "Prime time is the focus. That's where the money is."
Mr. Capus said he would like the channel to change its identity in ways that would distinguish it from its two chief competitors, the Fox News Channel and CNN.
"All three channels are doing a variation of headline news all day and talk shows at night," Mr. Capus said. "We need to get away from that."
Mr. Capus emphasized that NBC still strongly supported MSNBC, and was not looking for sharp reductions in budgets or staffing. "We think the channel has momentum now. We want to accelerate that."
Still, Mr. Capus made it clear that NBC was looking for ways to draw its network news division, NBC News, closer to the news operation at MSNBC. One indication of that is the leadership team he installed at the cable channel. NBC's new plan is for Mr. Abrams to run the channel on site from Secaucus, but the executive in overall charge will be Phil Griffin, 49, who has the same title at NBC's "Today" show — which is based in NBC's headquarters in New York.
The divided geographical structure of the new leadership has led to some rumors that NBC is considering shutting down the MSNBC site in Secaucus and housing MSNBC in Manhattan as well. "Closing Secaucus, if we get to that point, is a long way down the road," Mr. Capus said.
The shift in prime time will come far more quickly. For one aspect of the coming changes, Mr. Capus cited the staff of producers who work on the NBC newsmagazine program "Dateline." That program once provided three nights' worth of prime-time reports for NBC. In the fall it will be down to one night. Mr. Capus said of the "Dateline" staff members, who work just a floor above him in Manhattan, "You are going to see more of their work showing up in MSNBC."
The channel has already moved two hours of what is known in television as long-form reports onto its Friday night lineup, displacing its lineup of talk shows from 9 to 11 p.m. on that night. That model is doing well enough to be considered as a wider plan for MSNBC going forward.
One senior NBC executive said, "There will probably be one to two hours of long-form taped shows every night in prime time." The executive spoke on condition of anonymity because the decisions were not final and would affect some of the prime-time hosts, like Rita Cosby, Tucker Carlson and Joe Scarborough, now working on the channel.
Two of the channel's hosts, Chris Matthews of "Hardball" and Keith Olbermann of "Countdown," clearly will not be affected, because MSNBC's managers consistently cite those programs as long-sought breakthroughs.
"We've just got to build on those two shows," Mr. Griffin said, sitting beside Mr. Abrams in the conference room at MSNBC. "It's critical. We have to capitalize on their success."
That success has been relative, rather than sweeping. But MSNBC, which has lagged badly behind its rivals since its creation a decade ago, is clearly encouraged by some growth in ratings for the two programs. Mr. Matthews has been the channel's leading figure for years, but "Hardball" has ticked up in the ratings over the past year, especially among viewers between the ages of 25 and 54 — the group that is the chief sales basis for news programming.
Mr. Olbermann, meanwhile, has picked up both viewers and some strong word-of-mouth for his irreverent style. His show is up 36 percent since January in that 25-54 group. MSNBC points out that during the same period, CNN and Fox have been down that those hours.
Of course, a little bump goes a long way at MSNBC, where ratings have been mainly dwarfish over the years, especially next to Fox News. Even with Mr. Olbermann's surge, for example, he draws well less than half of what Bill O'Reilly of Fox does in that age group — and only a fifth of Mr. O'Reilly's total viewer number.
But Mr. Griffin noted that MSNBC's two big shows were going in the right direction now, gaining viewers, while most of those on Fox and CNN were showing declines. CNN especially is a target of opportunity for MSNBC, Mr. Griffin said, because Mr. Olbermann has beaten that network on many nights recently.
"CNN has watered down its brand," Mr. Griffin said. "We're chipping away at it."
CNN pronounces itself unworried about any charge from MSNBC, citing recent growth on many nights for its own shows headed by Wolf Blitzer and Anderson Cooper. Christa Robinson, a spokeswoman for CNN, said, "MSNBC's closest competitor is Headline News, not CNN."
Indeed for the most part, MSNBC's ratings track closest to that smaller sister channel of CNN. And in recent weeks, Ms. Robinson noted, Mr. Matthews's success has tailed off, making it possible that the bounce MSNBC received may have been driven by carry-over from the better numbers it received during its coverage of the Winter Olympics in February.
Nevertheless, NBC's executives cited signs of momentum as the chief reason for the decision on June 12 to remove Rick Kaplan as president of MSNBC and replace him with the team of Mr. Griffin and Mr. Abrams.
The selection of Mr. Griffin surprised no one, because he had been a top executive at MSNBC before NBC News moved him over to become the executive in charge of the "Today" show last year. That program has since righted itself and has regained a dominant position in morning television.
"Phil Griffin would have been a natural to run MSNBC, but his responsibilities at 'Today' are not done," said Mr. Capus.
Instead, NBC turned to Mr. Abrams, who had anchored his own daily show on MSNBC, "The Abrams Report." Mr. Griffin described the reaction at MSNBC to Mr. Abrams's appointment as "shock and awe — when the announcement went out there — and an audible gasp. People were just stunned."
Mr. Abrams, who is the son of Floyd Abrams, the prominent lawyer, said he had never lobbied for the job, but had consistently expressed his opinions about the direction of MSNBC, and what it could do better, in memos to Mr. Capus and social dinners with Mr. Griffin. He acknowledged that he lacked any real management experience, but he said his familiarity with the channel, its producers and on-air performers, would ease the transition.
Other than trying to make the daytime reports more "live and urgent, less newscasty," as he put it, Mr. Abrams did not offer many specifics about what his plan might be for taking advantage of the momentum that he, too, attributed to Mr. Matthews and Mr. Olbermann.
"We're close to figuring out what we want to do and how we want to do it," Mr. Abrams said.