CHRIS MATTHEWS: Good morning. I'm Chris Matthews. Welcome to "Hardball." Tonight – [END NEWS CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Exciting, ain't it? Chris Matthews is one of a few exciting voices on MSNBC. Keith Olbermann is another – not that it matters. The fact is, after 10 long years of identity crisis, MSNBC forever limps behind its competition. It was supposed to attract a generation of young Internet-savvy news watchers who would switch eagerly between the channel and its sister website. They were, after all, the eugenically-designed offspring of NBC and Microsoft. Here's how that newborn channel sounded when it was born on July 15th, 1996. [MUSIC UP AND UNDER] Brian Williams was there at the start. So was Jane Pauley. Soledad O'Brien hosted a show about the Internet called "The Site." [NEWS CLIP]:
MALE ANNOUNCER: You're connected to MSNBC. [END NEWS CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But the droves of tech-savvy viewers never tuned in. By 2002, MSNBC's news was being crowded out by chat. It lurched briefly to the left with Phil Donahue and then to the right with shock-jock Michael Savage, until a horrifying anti-gay rant got him fired. Still, if the channel was a lemon, the website was the golden egg. Today, msnbc.com often is the top-rated online destination for news, so this weekend, while the channel checks its pulse, the website can actually party. Brian Stelter writes the blog TVNewser. Brian, glad to have you back.
BRIAN STELTER: Thank you. Nice to be here.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So we know MSNBC's ratings have never been anything to celebrate, but how are they doing right now compared to CNN and Fox? A little behind or way behind?
BRIAN STELTER: For the most part, way behind. The network is still in third place, where it's been for many years. In primetime, it averages 200, 300, 400,000 viewers for their hourly broadcasts. In primetime, Fox gets up to 2,000,000 viewers a night with O'Riley and Hannity and Colmes and Greta Van Susteren.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Why has MSNBC failed to get a foothold?
BRIAN STELTER: The usual answer is that MSNBC has always had an identity crisis. CNN traditionally has represented a solid news network that breaks news and handles international stories well. Fox traditionally has been a more opinionated talk format, especially in the evening. MSNBC – it's more of a question mark. When it launched 10 years ago, the whole idea was to meld Internet and TV and the first real combination of the two. The original slogan of MSNBC was, "It's time to get connected." It never really happened, though. Maybe it was ahead of its time. Maybe people didn't want to get connected between the TV and the Internet. I think part of the issue was that there may not be room for three cable news networks.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So we see MSNBC's numbers trailing far behind CNN, and especially Fox, but the picture is pretty much reversed online.
BRIAN STELTER: That's right. Fox News is almost an also-ran at this point. Online, cnn.com and msnbc.com compete for number one. Msnbc.com especially has been very aggressive with video, with multimedia and with blogs. Also it has that connection to NBC News that MSNBC, the cable channel, has never really been able to tap into. They've done an outstanding job after Hurricane Katrina, putting reporters who were dedicated only to the website on the ground in Mississippi, and doing daily updates only on the Internet. MSNBC's never been able to even double or triple their viewership, but msnbc.com has added 10 times the visitors, about 30,000,000 unique visitors per month.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: If news, as we've reported on the show, seems to be moving to a new set of pipes, like, say, cell phones or other mobile devices, is msnbc.com then well placed?
BRIAN STELTER: I think MSNBC is perfectly positioned to do that. For instance, you can watch "NBC Nightly News" or "Meet the Press" in its full unedited form a few hours after it's broadcast. And NBC was one of the first news channels to try that. I've always said that the Holy Grail for MSNBC would be to have every segment it airs on cable available online. It wouldn't work because of the cable distribution agreements, but that's really the future. It might give less pressure for cable just to stick to the tabloid stories of the day if they know there's an audience online.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: We already know that the numbers of people who are getting their news from the Internet has just grown enormously and continues to grow at a great rate. But where does that leave broadcast news and where, especially, does that leave cable news?
BRIAN STELTER: Well, a fellow TV news analyst of mine, Andrew Tyndall, once said that when we look back, we're going to see cable as just the transitional medium between broadcast and online news.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Sort of the eight-track tape of news?
BRIAN STELTER: I think so. I definitely agree that cable, in 10 or 20 years, may not serve the same function it serves now. Certainly we tune to MSNBC when an election happens or when a Hurricane Katrina happens, but we don't really watch in between. Most viewers don't, anyway. Maybe a couple of hundred thousand every night. You just don't need cable news on an hourly basis.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So when CNN and Fox News Channel find themselves migrating to the online format as a principal format, they'll find an estimable competitor in msnbc.com. But the news channel?
BRIAN STELTER: I think we'll have to wait and see if it's still around 10 years from now, and if so, is it anything like what we know it now? Maybe there is room for three cable news channels, but I'm betting there's not.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: All right. Brian, thank you very much.
BRIAN STELTER: Thank you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Brian Stelter writes the essential cable blog, TVNewser.