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MSNBC Goes on the Air and Over the Web

Media: Despite a few last-minute glitches, the new interactive network looks to pose a serious challenge to CNN.

July 16, 1996|JANE HALL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NEW YORK — There was an embarrassing glitch on the computer side when MSNBC, the cable channel and online service bankrolled by NBC Inc. and Microsoft Corp., officially launched Monday morning: The Web site was inaccessible for the first hour because Microsoft was still loading it with content.

But the interrelationship between the two became evident later in the day. Anchor Tom Brokaw said that Internet users who had visited the MSNBC Web site in recent days had given him 7,000 suggestions for questions to ask in his interview with President Clinton on the cable channel Monday night. Viewers of that TV program were then invited to sign on to the MSNBC computer site to chat about it.

"This is very exciting triangulation for us; it significantly broadens our universe," said Brokaw, who joked at a news media briefing that he intended to "go through all 7,000 questions with the president" during his live, one-hour appearance on "InterNight," the nightly MSNBC interview show that will have Brokaw, Katie Couric and other NBC stars as the hosts.

The new network--the first major challenger to Ted Turner's Cable News Network since CNN started 16 years ago--included a healthy dose of self-promotion on its first day, with MSNBC anchor Jodi Applegate introducing Brokaw, Jane Pauley and other NBC anchors during the first hour.

Pauley will host "Time and Again," a nightly prime-time "walk through the 20th century" that will use NBC archival footage, from the Apollo 11 mission to a recently rediscovered interview with John Lennon by Tom Snyder on the old "Tomorrow" show.

During the day, MSNBC emphasized live coverage by NBC correspondents and in-studio talk by a variety of contributors. The programs were more a combination of live reporting and talk than traditional CNN-style newscasts, which have anchors introducing brief, videotaped pieces of the news of the day, with some recycling of the same news footage throughout the day.

MSNBC concentrated on a few stories each hour--the bombing in Ireland, for example, featuring a lengthy interview with Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams.

The NBC correspondents "talked" their stories more casually, with "Meet the Press" anchor and Washington bureau chief Tim Russert discussing an MSNBC presidential poll from the newsroom. A story on Kathie Lee Gifford's congressional testimony about sweatshops included live interviews from several sites, including New York's garment center.

MSNBC's competitors were impressed.

"They had a very solid beginning," said Ed Turner, CNN's vice president in charge of news gathering. "I liked their energy and their presenters. But I think their daytime format of focusing on only a few stories could be a problem for them--I don't think you need nearly an hour on the bombing in Ireland."

CNN, reaching nearly three times as many U.S. homes as its challenger, could afford to be gracious. MSNBC said its 24-hour news service was available in about 22 million homes--a large starting point by cable standards, made possible by the fact that NBC didn't have to secure new channel outlets everywhere but instead changed the format of what had been its America's Talking channel, which had two years to work its way onto cable systems around the country.

CNN executives have said they are not fearful of the MSNBC challenge and plan to emphasize their strength in covering breaking news with a worldwide staff of correspondents. But the Atlanta-based cable channel did react: It upgraded its World Wide Web site and has hired a new ad agency to develop a promotional campaign to counter the MSNBC advertising blitz, and CNN President Tom Johnson said it may become necessary to hire "some highly visible anchors."

At a news conference announcing the start of the new services, Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates said: "We're changing the way people think about, and interact with, the news."

"Even I have been affected by this," said Gates, talking via satellite from MSNBC's Redmond, Wash., newsroom in suburban Seattle. "I now have a TV in my office, and I'm watching MSNBC."

Full-motion video will not be available for several years on the Microsoft Web site or any other on the Web, so viewers will have to wait for "customized" video newscasts.

The main set at MSNBC's headquarters in New Jersey--with a lot of stainless steel, brick and a blue staircase--reflected the youth of the staff and the younger viewers that MSNBC hopes to court. Despite the prominence of MSNBC's prime-time anchors, many of the other staffers at the Fort Lee, N.J., headquarters are in their 20s and 30s.

"There are a few 'graybeards' in their 40s running the network," NBC Vice President Bill Wheatley said.

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