Not So Revolutionary

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Not So Revolutionary

This is Associated Press TV writer Frazier Moore Watching Television for KCRW and pointing out a 10-year milestone for cable news this past Saturday: On July 15, 1996, just 84 days remained 'til Fox News Channel began.

Oh, by the way -- July 15, 1996, was also the day MSNBC signed on. And whatever became of it, some of you may be thinking.

Though other viewers know better: MSNBC, of course, is where Connie Chung sang Thanks for the Memories only last month, on the farewell edition of the talk show she and husband Maury Povich briefly co-hosted. But far more people would see Connie's riotous performance on the Web site You Tube -- where it became the most popular clip of the week -- than when MSNBC aired it.

Ironically, this is sort of what NBC and Microsoft were promising back in '96. Their MSNBC joint venture was potentially a wholesale harnessing of television and the personal computer. We could look forward to a bounty of facts, figures, graphics, even full-motion video issuing from our PCs -- all cross-referenced with TV newscasts, customized to suit our needs, and harvested with the click of a mouse.

Granted, the new network's patrons -- NBC boss Bob Wright and Microsoft's Bill Gates -- weren't unique in their prophecy of TV and Internet convergence. But they had unsurpassed know-how and clout. (Didn't they?) And they had Tom Brokaw, Katie Couric and the rest of NBC News at their disposal. Plus scads of money. And plenty of hubris. "It's time to get connected," their promos declared. "The revolution begins here."

Well, they were half-right. It was time to get connected, and a revolution was beginning. Just not there.

But a different kind of revolution did begin Oct. 7, 1996, with the launch of Fox News Channel.

That whole operation was started from scratch in a matter of months by TV visionary and former political consultant Roger Ailes. A mighty feat! But Ailes, eschewing any talk of revolution, simply promised his network would be fair and balanced. And Ailes, who is nothing if not a salesman, thus sold "fair-and-balanced" as revolutionary.

Some observers doubted there was room for three cable news networks, and maybe there wasn't. With Fox News Channel grabbing the audience lead, and CNN -- for the first time facing competition -- planted in the runner-up slot, MSNBC began 10-years-and-counting as a distant ratings also-ran.

Since then, it's gone through faces and formats like Kleenex in flu season, and continues to suffer from an identity crisis -- which is to say, no identity at all.

Dan Abrams is the latest guy in charge, and under his regime, which began last month, a new priority will be documentaries. But five years ago, the network was touting its documentary unit and its hundreds of hours of long-form programming. And how long did that last?

MSNBC began with the lofty mission of discovering how to satisfy tomorrow's audience for news. Now, on its 10th anniversary, tomorrow has come and gone, while other information providers have made hay. Who would have dreamed MSNBC would still be trying to find itself? How could it have let the revolution pass it by?

Watching Television for KCRW, this is Associated Press TV writer Frazier Moore.