- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 29, 2009

NEW YORK | Opinionated talk is big business on cable news networks when the sun goes down.

During the day, though, it’s the opposite.

MSNBC is shuffling its daytime lineup early next year because its strategy of spreading personality-driven programming throughout the schedule isn’t working. The new approach will emphasize a fast-paced review of the day’s big stories as they break.

Either the prime-time audience for cable news is substantially different from the daytime one or viewers simply want to see something different depending on the time of day.

Cable news is often considered a form of background noise during the day, playing in the office or at home while people are doing something else. Sometimes people briefly visit the networks for a check of the headlines, says CNN’s John King.

“You’re coming in for a fix,” Mr. King says. “I don’t think you’re coming in for a fight.”

At night, it’s different when fans of Bill O’Reilly, Keith Olbermann, Sean Hannity, Rachel Maddow and the like have time to lounge in their living rooms and hear the news filtered through their favorite personalities.

MSNBC’s prime-time lineup of Mr. Olbermann and Miss Maddow put the once-struggling network on the map, establishing it as a liberal voice during President Obama’s campaign. Even after the election, MSNBC’s prime-time lineup has run neck and neck with CNN for second place behind the dominant Fox News Channel. MSNBC will beat CNN among its target demographic of 25-to-54-year-olds in 2009 for the first year ever, according to the Nielsen Co.

Early morning tends to reward personality, too, with the lively “Fox & Friends,” MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” and Robin Meade on HLN. Things change when the workday starts.

MSNBC didn’t recognize this earlier this year when it gave former CNBC anchor Dylan Ratigan a two-hour show at 9 a.m. and Dr. Nancy Snyderman a medically oriented hour at noon.

Mr. Ratigan is not shy about spouting off; he apologized last week for being rude to a Florida congresswoman during an interview about health care reform. He proved a bad fit in the morning. MSNBC is cutting his show in half and moving it to 4 p.m., before Chris Matthews.

Dr. Snyderman’s show was canceled.

As replacements, MSNBC will pair Chuck Todd and Savannah Guthrie for one hour at 9 a.m. in a newsy, nonpartisan look at the day’s upcoming events. For the other daytime hours, the network will have general news programming anchored by David Shuster, Tamron Hall, Contessa Brewer and Andrea Mitchell, says Phil Griffin, the network’s chief executive.

“We did some experimentation to find out what the audience during the daytime wants, and I think we found out they want your basic facts — give me the facts, Ma’am,” Mr. Griffin said. “We can still do it with our passion and a fast pace.”

MSNBC may need to prove its news commitment to viewers. With news of the attempted terrorist attack on a plane bound for Detroit breaking late on Christmas, the network stuck with pre-taped programming. CNN and Fox covered the story much more extensively.

Prime-time is much more appointment viewing, Mr. Griffin says.

His rivals have long acknowledged the differences. During the network’s public battle with the Obama administration in the fall, Fox executives made a point of casting daytime differently, saying that is when the network’s news operation operates, as opposed to the editorial section with Mr. O’Reilly and Mr. Hannity at night.

HLN, formerly CNN Headline News, generally runs a continuous “wheel” of half-hour newscasts during the day and opinionated programs led by Nancy Grace at night.

The main CNN network, while it has suffered in prime time, has more than twice MSNBC’s audience from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., according to the Nielsen Co. During the midday hours, MSNBC often runs fifth in its target demo, behind Fox, CNN, HLN and CNBC.

News junkies who want opinion during the daytime are more likely to seek it in a different form. Those are the hours when the programs of radio stars such as Rush Limbaugh, Mr. Hannity, Glenn Beck and Ed Schultz air. They’re better suited to busy people who can listen in their car radios, for example.

MSNBC will be committed during the day to making sure that viewers who tune in are told the big stories of the day within five or 10 minutes, Mr. Griffin says.

“All three cable networks kind of struggle during the day trying to figure out their identity,” he says. “We’re going to get into a more aggressive headline-and-information programming.”

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