The News Outlet Store
Misery. Stupidity. NoBody Cares.
That's what the combined call letters of two media behemoths mean to the young worker bees, the daily drones who schlep to Secaucus, N.J., to grind out the endless "newsfood" packages that substitute for real information at the 24/7 cable content outlet store on the wrong side of the Hudson.
At least that's what the surf/cyber punks who day-labor there tell me.
But they're cynical survivors, cranking out whatever crap the "Fat Man" (their moniker for longtime bigtime network news exec Rick Kaplan) tells them to. It's just a gig to pay rent on the Rockaway surf shack, so what do they care?
They don't. Remember?
Misery. Stupidity. NoBody Cares.
But I do care, and so should you.
All this and more came to mind recently, when NBC Universal announced it has taken majority control of the low-rated cable newser MSNBC, buying out the interest of its putative partner Microsoft. The new deal put an end to what trade journal Broadcasting & Cable coyly termed one of "the more strained partnerships in cable TV." Less restrained observers -- such as this reporter -- have instead long viewed the cellar dwellers' relations as more of, say, an "unmitigated disaster."
MSNBC has never made even a dent in the cable news ratings, lagging well behind News Corp.'s Fox NewsChannel and Time Warner's CNN. It has, however, made lots of high-profile but ill-thought-out attempts to make an impact with its programming, including shows hosted by Phil Donahue, former wrestler and Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura, former U.S. Rep. Joe Scarborough and not-even-former politician Alan Keyes. More recently, in a spate of "If you can't beat 'em, join 'em" programming, it has resorted to recycling retreads like ex-Fox News anchor Rita Crosby and onetime CNN bow-tied bad boy Tucker Carlson -- with predictably dismal results.
While shedding its cable interest, computer giant Microsoft will keep its piece of the shared (and unlike the channel, extremely popular) MSNBC website. Since the network's launch nearly a dotcom decade ago, Microsoft has largely been a silent partner -- other than shelling out about $30 million per year to prop up the disastrous cable co-venture. Having shed its other major media asset last year, when it sold its interest in online magazine Slate to the Washington Post Co., Microsoft wisely seems to be returning to its core business of dominating the internet with inferior but ubiquitous software.
NBC will now have an 82 percent stake in the channel and an option to acquire the rest after two years, so the transaction puts NBC squarely in control of MSNBC for the first time. But given the abysmal performance heretofore, why should we expect anything different or better now that Bill Gates is out of the picture?
According to the New York Times, "executives within NBC complained that they did not have enough control of the network's budget to hire the right talent and market its programs." NBC News President Steve Capus, who also oversees MSNBC, explained. "Acquiring a controlling interest in MSNBC will allow us to fully integrate the channel into our news operations and our overall cable platform," Capus said. He added that MSNBC "is a critical component of NBC News' success and has made some key viewership gains in recent months."
Capus failed to note, however, that it still ranks below the WPIX programming of a burning Yule log in the latest Nielsen ratings At the risk of making sense, may I humbly suggest that there might exist some relation between the quality of the "newsfood" NBC's cable outlet has been serving up for the past 10 years and its historical paucity of viewers?
The point may be best driven home anecdotally. A few years back, a bright, energetic, idealistic and extremely promising young woman -- a recent Yale graduate, in fact -- interned with me. Unfortunately, when the internship was done, I had no job to offer. So with some trepidation she took a producer's position at MSNBC.
Six months later, when I called to ask how she was faring, she said she was going to attend law school soon. Why? Because she just couldn't take the misery, or the stupidity, or the lack of caring, any longer.
"Here's what my job entails," she explained. "Every day dozens of 'feeds' come in from all over the world, from places I've never been to and don't know anything about. Then I write scripts for packages based on those feeds, and then I edit them, and then they go on the air. I don't feel like I can keep doing this any longer, in good conscience. So I've decided just to leave the news business entirely."
With Microsoft out of the picture, NBC executives say they may now change MSNBC's name. This is of course standard practice in the Land of Master Control, where the first decision every incoming news executive makes is to "change the set!" But if Capus & Co. don't change everything else about their beleaguered network, they'll just be setting themselves -- and us -- up for another amusing, insulting, but telling, acronym.