MSNBC Bets on Chris Matthews
By Gintautas Dumcius
Wednesday, July 28, 2004
Behind the well-hidden MSNBC press office and a security guard who appears perfectly
capable of breaking tall, lanky reporters in two stands Chris Matthews, anchor
and star of a network still searching for itself and respectable ratings.
It is making a big push for both this week.
MSNBC has constructed a
giant tented set outside Boston's historic Faneuil Hall for Chris Matthews' "Hardball"
Media Nation Photo by Carl Brooks
The battle of the broadcast television networks, who once validated their news
departments by gathering huge audiences for the coverage of national political
conventions, is long over. The real media contest at this convention is capturing
the smaller but still prestigious and profitable cable news audience.
For long-time leader CNN, these are challenging times. Two years ago Fox News
Channel stole the audience lead CNN amassed in the years before it had any competitors.
Now MSNBC, led by CNNs former head, Rick Kaplan, is coming on strong.
His strategy, Kaplan tells friends, is simple: stress content. But to outside
observers, it appears the strategy is as much built around the old TV rule: that
people watch people, not programs. The man he hopes people will watch is Matthews
MSNBCs prime time tent-pole just as Larry King was for CNN in its earliest
days and Bill OReilly was and still is for Fox. The tent pole has to be
a big talent who gets big numbers in primetime.
MSNBC has bet the farm on Chris Matthews, said Brian Stelter, editor
of TVNewser, a blog covering broadcast news on mediabistro.com.
Stelter noted that MSNBCs strategy is pinned on Matthewss style. Some
viewers are turned off by him, but many more tune in just because of him. Matthews
helps differentiate the network, he said in an e-mail exchange.
Matthews, 58, is bright, blustery and bombastic. On camera he exudes an almost
boyish enthusiasm for politics, where he spent much of his early life as a speechwriter
for President Jimmy Carter and later as a top aide to the late Thomas P. Tip
ONeill, when he was Speaker of the House.
Matthews has also made a name for himself with his loud and fast mouth. But ask
Matthews for a 10-minute interview and he grimaces, as if 10 minutes are an eternity
to a man who talks faster than an Aaron Sorkin character.
This week Matthews is anchoring the networks coverage of the convention
and also playing a version of his nightly talk show, Hardball, with
a panel of political experts, right-winger Joe Scarborough, lefty California politico
Willie Brown and journalists Howard Fineman of Newsweek and Andrea Mitchell of
NBC. Prodded by Matthews, they review politics more as theater than substance,
but thats the current TV talk show style.
Mitchells presence underlines a key asset for MSNBC: occasional appearances
by NBCs stable of news stars. Even mega-stars Tom Brokaw and Katie Couric
show up from time to time.
South Boston bus driver John Carey said hes normally a Fox viewer, but during
the convention hes also watching MSNBC. He likes Matthews, he said. There
are times when he makes you forget he was a Tip ONeil Democrat. Thats
a good thing.
Congresswoman Karen McCarthy (D-Missouri) was watching Matthews' show and CNN
at home in Kansas City while nursing a broken foot. I prefer MSNBC because
its analysis is more substantive, less political and less intrusive than CNN,"
News audiences are traditionally extremely slow to build, and no ones making
any claims quite yet, but there was an air of quiet confidence in MSNBCs
executive suite Monday when the ratings for Sunday night showed Matthews and company
For its coverage of the Democratic convention, "Hardball" has been expanded
to five hours and is being broadcast from historic Faneuil Hall, where Colonial-era
Bostonians led protests against British taxation.
Its giant tented set is sandwiched between the Salty Dog and Plaza III restaurants.
The show has been drawing enthusiastic crowds, mostly tourists, Bush supporters
wearing giant flip-flops and a squad of $15-an-hour temps hired by CNN to hand
out buttons and fans with the networks call letters.
After the credits roll, Matthews steps off the stage and talks to the crowds packed
between the set and the Salty Dog. He seems to connect easily.
Whos for President Bush here? he asks. Anyone Republican?
The crowd responds with a smattering of boos and applause. Very interesting,
Blocks away, inside the Fleet Center, surrounded by convention guards in battle
dress and black-clad SWAT teams, CNN anchors its broadcast from an unprecedented
location: a platform on the convention floor. "Wolf Blitzer may be the most
interviewed person at the convention," observed one DNC volunteer.
But with its convention news staff reported to be only about half what it
was in 2000, CNN may have missed a greater opportunity here. For MSNBC, this was