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4 minute read
Richard Zoglin

Step 1 is now complete,” a portentous voice proclaims in one oft-run commercial for MSNBC, the all-news channel from Microsoft Corp. and NBC that debuted to much fanfare last week. But Step 1–putting a professional-looking news operation on the air, with plenty of glitz and gab and good-looking TV personalities–was easy. The hard part came when news broke.

Brian Williams, one of NBC’s rising stars, was anchoring the channel’s hour-long evening newscast Wednesday night when reports began filtering in about an aircraft exploding off the coast of Long Island, New York. It was one of those defining moments for a TV news organization: trying to make sense of a big breaking story from the first sketchy information without making a fool of yourself. MSNBC won the initial bragging rights: it aired the first bulletin on the crash a full eight minutes before CNN did. After that, however, 16-year-old CNN proved more resourceful and surefooted.

Williams did a game job of trying to fill dead air time during the first hour or two, but it became clear that his support systems were inadequate. He was reduced to reading wire copy handed to him by staff members, making idle chitchat about Boeing 747 seat configurations and looking in vain for help from NBC aviation specialist Robert Hager, who was in Atlanta with little to add.

In the meantime, CNN got more information faster from the Coast Guard, had telephone accounts from eyewitnesses earlier (courtesy of two of its New York TV affiliates), and brought a former National Transportation Safety Board official, Vernon Grose, into the studio for some valuable perspective. CNN showed a tape of TWA’s first press conference at 11:30 p.m. EST; MSNBC didn’t get to it until an hour later. Anchor Williams, meanwhile, was forced to pause at regular intervals, compose himself for the camera and start all over again–to provide updates for NBC affiliates picking up MSNBC’s feed. The new channel’s one coup: stunning live pictures of the burning wreckage, supplied by a WNBC-TV helicopter.

In the earlier, calmer part of the week, MSNBC had made a creditable debut. The well-hyped challenger to CNN brought some big guns to the competition: top NBC correspondents like Andrea Mitchell and Gwen Ifill contributed updates on major stories during the day, and network stars like Tom Brokaw, Katie Couric and Bob Costas took turns as host of a nightly interview show called InterNight. (Just how long they will continue to do double-duty for MSNBC remains to be seen.) With its pleasantly bustling set, slick presentation and hot-wired anchors, MSNBC made CNN look a little dowdy.

On the downside was a pointless parade of contributing pundits, who appeared in mix-and-match threesomes and contributed little but air-filling babble, and the channel’s nonstop, near evangelical promotion of the Internet, where it has a Website. The partnership of NBC and Microsoft holds the promise of creating a hybrid form of news delivery on both TV and the Internet, but this Website has so far been disappointing.

NBC News president Andrew Lack blamed some of MSNBC’s difficulties after the crash on the fact that so much of NBC’s production resources are in Atlanta for the Olympics. Still, he praised the channel’s performance. “We were working in an emergency situation with a group of people who have known each other for barely 90 days,” he said, “and I thought we did a remarkable job. Frankly, I can’t conceive being tested under more adverse conditions. And the system held up.”

The system will almost certainly improve. Microsoft and NBC have vowed to pump $80 million to $100 million a year into the venture, and the channel has access to all of NBC’s news-gathering resources. Its chief problem is distribution. MSNBC is carried so far in 22.5 million cable homes, a record number for a start-up cable channel, but still far behind CNN’s 68.5 million. (CNN is owned by Turner Broadcasting, which is in the process of merging with Time Warner, parent company of TIME.) And a new competitor from Fox, due in October, won’t make life any easier.

Most TV-industry observers doubt there’s a big enough audience–or enough advertising dollars–to support three all-news channels, but Lack dismisses the concerns: “I think the documentary evidence is that if you produce something of quality, whether it’s a fine restaurant on a block next to three other restaurants, or another news program in a universe of lots of news programs, if it’s a good service and it’s cost efficient, you’ve got a business.” You’ve also got, for the first time, some real competition in 24-hour TV news, and the audience will be one sure winner.

–With reporting by William Tynan/New York

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