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MSNBC Hires Donahue to Raise Its Prime-Time Profile, Ratings

April 04, 2002|ELIZABETH JENSEN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NEW YORK — MSNBC took another step in the third-place cable news network's attempt to make its prime-time lineup more high-profile and opinionated, confirming Wednesday the hiring of former daytime talk-show host Phil Donahue to front a still-untitled weeknight show.

Donahue, a liberal who supported Ralph Nader for president, will air at 5 p.m. Pacific time as counter-programming to Fox News Channel's top-rated Bill O'Reilly, who appeals to a large conservative audience. Both will be up against Connie Chung on CNN.

"I want to win. I always have, and it's even more exciting to go against a personality who has been so successful of late," the 66-year-old Donahue said in a conference call with reporters. "Let's ring the bell and see what happens here."

Donahue faces a major challenge. Nielsen Media Research ratings released this week rank "The O'Reilly Factor" as the most-watched cable news show of first-quarter 2002, with an average 2.1 million viewers. By contrast, MSNBC's "The News With Brian Williams," which is moving to make way for Donahue, drew 375,000 viewers on average. Williams' newscast will move to 4 p.m. when Donahue's show starts sometime in the summer.

The events of Sept. 11 inspired his return to television, Donahue said, repeatedly emphasizing the importance he places on free speech. The new live show will focus on news of the day, which he called "more dramatic, complex and compelling than at any other time in my lifetime." There will be guests and calls from viewers but no studio audience, which he had on his pioneering issue-oriented daytime talk show, which went off the air in 1996. Of the new show, he said, "I hope we'll be civil, I hope we'll be different, and, please God, I hope we won't be boring."

Terms of the long-term deal weren't disclosed. NBC News President Neal Shapiro called the hiring the first of "what will be many, many steps" to build the cable network into a more competitive force. In addition, MSNBC won an internal NBC tug-of-war for exclusive airings of "Hardball With Chris Matthews," which it had been sharing with CNBC, diluting ratings of both showings. The two channels will continue to share Williams' show, although the number of nightly airings will be reduced to three from five.

MSNBC President Erik Sorenson said the channel plans to bring "more interesting people" on board. Both he and Donahue also dismissed speculation that the new show might appeal more to older viewers than the younger audience MSNBC targets. "You think Phil Donahue, you think hip- hop, and we're going to exploit that," Donahue quipped.

Matthews' show will air at 6 p.m., pushing Ashleigh Banfield's show to 7, followed by conservative Alan Keyes.

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