Nieman Foundation at Harvard University MediaNation UMass Boston

July 28, 2004

Front Page
By the Numbers

About Us
Contact Us

Boston Globe

Resources for
Media Watchdogs

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 CNN’s 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 MSNBC’s prime time tent-pole just as Larry King was for CNN in its earliest days and Bill O’Reilly 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

Stelter noted that MSNBC’s strategy is pinned on Matthews’s 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” O’Neill, 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 network’s 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 that’s the current TV talk show style.

Mitchell’s presence underlines a key asset for MSNBC: – occasional appearances by NBC’s 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 he’s normally a Fox viewer, but during the convention he’s also watching MSNBC. He likes Matthews, he said. “There are times when he makes you forget he was a Tip O’Neil Democrat. That’s 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," she said.

News audiences are traditionally extremely slow to build, and no one’s making any claims quite yet, but there was an air of quiet confidence in MSNBC’s executive suite Monday when the ratings for Sunday night showed Matthews and company edging Fox.

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 network’s 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.

“Who’s for President Bush here?” he asks. “Anyone Republican?”

The crowd responds with a smattering of boos and applause. “Very interesting,” he says.

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 show time.



MediaNation TM © 2004 University of Massachusetts Boston and
Nieman Foundation at Harvard University. Legal notice