Howard Kurtz got a scoop late yesterday that reminded everyone what the “MS” in MSNBC means. The cable channel and website originally started as a partnership between Microsoft and NBC, but the software giant pulled out of the cable channel not long after its launch. Until now, though, it has remained a partner with NBC News on the MSNBC.com website, but Kurtz reports that NBC has finally bought out its silent partner:
NBC and Microsoft plan to announce a deal to finally part company, with the network buying back the remainder of their hugely popular MSNBC website from the software giant, say people familiar with the matter.
Under the plan, officials will rebrand MSNBC.com, which consistently ranks among the top three in online news sites, as NBCNews.com. The announcement of the corporate divorce is expected within days, although there could always be a last-minute snag.
So why now? Kurtz talks about NBC’s frustration at not having control of their website:
NBC executives have grown frustrated at not having sole control of the MSNBC website, which does original reporting as well as aggregating content from the AP, Reuters, New York Times and elsewhere. At the same time, as the MSNBC channel has forged a separate identity as the liberal home of Rachel Maddow, Chris Matthews, Ed Schultz and others, the company has worried about the brand confusion caused by its straight-news site bearing the same name. And the cable channel has lacked a site solely devoted to pushing its personalities.
Two years ago, NBC and Microsoft held serious negotiations about changing the name of MSNBC.com to alleviate that confusion. Once Microsoft withdraws, NBC may create a second site with the MSNBC name simply to promote the cable channel’s offerings.
This sounds more like the problem, although I’m sure that the control issue played into it as well. The partnership with Microsoft forced NBC to use the one platform to push all of its news offerings, not just the cable channel. The network news division has no website of its own. That reinforces the impression — actually, the reality — that MSNBC’s highly partisan lineup is part and parcel of its news division, an image that has already created tensions within NBC in the past, specifically during the Keith Olbermann era at MSNBC. When Ed Schultz and his union income gets promoted on the same level and the same platform as network anchor Brian Williams and the rest of the NBC News division, that goes directly to the perceived credibility and fairness of the entire organization.
With this buyout, NBC can finally split its platform and separate the news division from the cable channel, at least on the Internet. The new NBCNews.com can promote Williams and its other straight-news offerings, while leaving the cable shows to their own devices. Regardless of how intellectually honest that might be, it makes good branding sense — and it gives NBC News a way to distance itself from the prime-time progressives that undermine the image of objectivity NBC needs to project.