MSNBC was established by NBC executive Tom Rogers. Rogers was instrumental in developing the strategic partnership with Microsoft, which invested $221 million for a 50% share of the cable channel. MSNBC and Microsoft would share the cost of a $200 million newsroom in Secaucus, New Jersey, for msnbc.com. The network took over the channel space of NBC's 18-month-old America's Talking network, though in most cases cable carriage had to be negotiated with providers who never carried AT.
MSNBC was launched on July 15, 1996. The first show, which was anchored by Jodi Applegate, broadcast a lineup of news, interviews, and opinions. During the day, rolling news coverage continued with The Contributors, a show that featured Ann Coulter and Laura Ingraham, as well as interactive programming coordinated by Applegate, John Gibson and John Seigenthaler. Stories were generally longer and more detailed than the stories running on CNN at the time. NBC also highlighted their broadcast connections by airing stories direct from the NBC network affiliates, along with breaking news coverage from the same sources.
Gradually, MSNBC began to put more emphasis on politics. The Project for Excellence in Journalism found in 2007 after a seven-year survey of cable channels that "MSNBC is moving to make politics a brand, with a large dose of opinion and personality." In January 2001, Mike Barnicle got a show on MSNBC, but it was canceled in June 2001 due to high production costs. In June, in a sign of continuing trouble at MSNBC, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer said that he would not have started MSNBC if he knew then what he knows now (referencing the longstanding troubles attracting viewers). After the September 11, 2001 attacks, MSNBC served as an outlet for NBC News to provide up-to-the-minute coverage, in contrast to broadcast NBC's longer stories. CNBC and CNBC Europe, with little financial news to report, ran MSNBC for many hours of the day following the attacks. The year also boosted the profile of Ashleigh Banfield, who was present during the collapse of Building 7 while covering the World Trade Center on September 11. Her Region In Conflict program capitalized on her newfound celebrity and showcased exclusive interviews from Afghanistan.
On December 23, 2005, it was announced that NBC Universal would acquire an additional 32% share of the television channel from Microsoft, solidifying its control over television operations and allowing NBC to further consolidate MSNBC's backroom operations with NBC News and its other cable properties. (The news website msnbc.com remained a separate joint venture between Microsoft and NBC for another seven years.) NBC would have the option, which it exercised, to buy the remaining 18% share of the television from Microsoft after two years. MSNBC, along with other U.S. news networks, had been criticized for having a distorted and biased media coverage of the Iraq War. The network began from 2005 onward to attract liberal and progressive viewers when host Keith Olbermann began critiquing and satirizing conservative media commentators on his program Countdown With Keith Olbermann. Olbermann especially focused his attention to Fox News Channel and its main primetime commentator, Bill O'Reilly.
On June 7, 2006, Rick Kaplan resigned as president of MSNBC, after holding the post for two years. Following the announcement, it was announced on June 12, 2006, that Dan Abrams, a nine-year veteran of MSNBC and NBC News, had been named general manager of MSNBC, effective immediately. NBC News senior vice president Phil Griffin would oversee MSNBC, while also continuing to oversee NBC News’ Today, and Abrams would report to Griffin.
On June 29, 2006, Abrams announced a revamp to MSNBC's early-primetime and primetime schedule. On July 10, Tucker (formerly The Situation with Tucker Carlson) started airing at 4 p.m. and 6 p.m. ET (taking over Abrams' old timeslot), while Rita Cosby's Live & Direct was taken off the schedule. Cosby was instead given the role of primary anchor for MSNBC Investigates at 10 and 11 p.m. ET, a new program that took over Cosby and Carlson's timeslots. According to the press release, MSNBC Investigates promised to "...complement MSNBC's existing programming by building on [the channel's] library of award winning documentaries." The move to taped programming during 10 and 11 p.m. was likely a result of the success that MSNBC saw with their Friday "experiment" of replacing all primetime programming with taped specials. On September 24, 2007, Abrams announced that he would leave the position of General Manager to focus on his 9:00 p.m. ET talk show, "Live With Dan Abrams". Oversight of MSNBC is now provided by Phil Griffin, a senior vice president at NBC.
MSNBC and NBC News began broadcasting from their new studios at NBC's 30 Rockefeller Center complex in New York City on October 22, 2007. After extensive renovations of the associated studios, NBC essentially merged its entire news operation into one building, and all MSNBC broadcasts, as well as NBC Nightly News, originate from the new studios. More than 12.5 hours of live television across the NBC News family originate from the New York studios daily. MSNBC is also announced new studios near the Universal Studios lot. MSNBC's master control did not make the move to 30 Rock. It remained in the old Secaucus headquarters until it completed its move to the NBC Universal Network Origination Center located inside the CNBC Global Headquarters building in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, on December 21, 2007. Shortly thereafter, Major League Baseball firmed up a long-term lease of the former MSNBC building to become the home studios of MLB Network, which launched from the facility on January 1, 2009.
From mid-2007 to mid-2008, MSNBC received a large increase in its ratings. Primetime viewings increased by 61% over that time. In May 2008, NBC News president Steve Capus said that "It used to be people didn't have to worry about MSNBC because it was an also-ran cable channel.... That's not the case anymore." Tim Russert's sudden death in June 2008 removed what The Wall Street Journal called the "rudder for the network" and led to a period of transition.
During the 2008 Presidential election, MSNBC's coverage was anchored by Keith Olbermann, Chris Matthews and David Gregory. The three were widely viewed as the face of the channel's political coverage. During the first three months of the presidential campaign, MSNBC's ratings grew by 158 percent. However, during the election coverage, anchors Keith Olbermann and Chris Matthews were criticized for expressing left-leaning viewpoints on the channel, and both of them were later removed from the position of anchor. Audience viewership during the 2008 Presidential election more than doubled from the 2004 Presidential election, and the channel topped CNN in ratings for the first time during the last three months of the campaign in the key 25–54 age demographic.
In September 2008, the channel hired political analyst and Air America Radio personality Rachel Maddow to host a new political opinion program called The Rachel Maddow Show. The move to create a new program for the channel was widely seen as a smart ratings move, where beforehand, MSNBC lagged behind in coveted primetime ratings. The show regularly outperformed CNN's Larry King Live, and made the channel competitive in the program's time slot for the first time in over a decade.
In the first quarter of 2010, MSNBC beat CNN in primetime and overall ratings, marking the first time doing so since 2001. The channel also beat CNN in total adult viewers in March, marking the seventh out of the past eight months that MSNBC achieved that result. In addition, the programs Morning Joe, The Ed Show, Hardball with Chris Matthews, Countdown with Keith Olbermann, and The Rachel Maddow Show all finished ahead of their time slot competitors on CNN.
In the third quarter of 2010, MSNBC continued its solid lead over CNN, beating the network in total day for the first time since 2Q 2001 in the key adult demographic. The network also beat CNN for the fourth consecutive quarter, among both primetime and total viewers, as well as becoming the only cable news network to have its key adult demographic viewership grow over the last quarter, increasing by 4%. During this time, MSNBC also became the number-one cable news network in primetime among both African American and Hispanic viewers.
On October 11, 2010, MSNBC unveiled a new televised advertising campaign and slogan called "Lean Forward". "We've taken on CNN and we beat them," MSNBC president Phil Griffin told employees at a series of celebratory "town hall" meetings. "Now it's time to take on Fox." Concerning the campaign, Griffin said, "It is active, it is positive, it is about making tomorrow better than today, a discussion about politics and the actions and passions of our time." The new campaign embraces the network's politically progressive identity. The two-year advertising campaign would cost $2 million and consist of internet, television, and print advertising. The new positioning has created brand image issues for msnbc.com, the umbrella website for the television network. A New York Times article quotes Charlie Tillinghast, president of msnbc.com, a separate company, as saying, "Both strategies are fine, but naming them the same thing is brand insanity." As a result, msnbc.com eventually changed its name to prevent confusion with the television network, MSNBC; it rebranded the more news-driven msnbc.com as NBCNews.com in July 2012.
On January 21, 2011, Keith Olbermann announced his departure from MSNBC and the episode would be the final episode of Countdown. His departure received much media attention. MSNBC issued a statement that it had ended its contract with Olbermann, with no further explanation. Olbermann later revealed that he had taken his show to Current TV.
During 2014, MSNBC's total ratings in the 25 to 54 age group declined 20%, falling to third place behind CNN. The only demographic in which MSNBC still leads is among Hispanics and even more so among African-Americans.
In efforts to revive the struggling network, MSNBC underwent a transition from more left leaning opinionated programming to hard news programming beginning in the summer of 2015. Nearly all daytime opinionated news programs were replaced with generic news programs. Ronan Farrow, Joy Reid, Krystal Ball, Touré, Ari Melber, Abby Huntsman, Alex Wagner, Ed Schultz and Al Sharpton all lost their weekday opinion shows. News programs presented by well-established NBC News personalities including Telemundo anchor Jose Diaz-Balart, Meet the Press anchor Chuck Todd, Sunday NBC Nightly News anchor Kate Snow, Thomas Roberts, and former NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams replaced opinion shows. A new on air presentation debuted in late summer 2015, which included a new logo, a news ticker, as well as a new graphics package. MSNBC Live now takes up at least eight hours of programming each day, barring any breaking news that could extend its time. Daytime news coverage is led primarily by Brian Williams, Stephanie Ruhle, Jose Diaz-Balart, Andrea Mitchell, Craig Melvin, Thomas Roberts, and Kate Snow, in addition to 'beat leaders' located throughout the newsroom. These include chief legal correspondent Ari Melber, primary political reporter Steve Kornacki, business and finance correspondent Olivia Sterns, and senior editor Cal Perry.
Morning and primetime programming has not changed during this transition as it remains filled by mostly opinionated personalities.
In April 2016, MSNBC launched a campaign of promotional ads with the theme, "in order to know beyond, you have to go beyond." The campaign attempts to portray MSNBC's reporting and perspectives as in depth and an alternative to "talking points" coverage on other cable news outlets.
In July 2016, the network debuted a new, abridged version of Dateline NBC, known as "Dateline Extra", in yet another step to align MSNBC and NBC News. The new program is hosted by MSNBC Live anchor Tamron Hall.
In September 2016, MSNBC launched The 11th Hour with Brian Williams as a nightly wrap-up for the news of the day and a preview of the following day's headlines. This is the first new primetime program on the network in nearly four years.
In January 2017, MSNBC debuted a new program in the 6 pm EST hour entitled For the Record with Greta. The program is hosted by former Fox News Channel anchor Greta Van Susteren.
Before 2010 MSNBC was not available to Verizon FiOS and AT&T U-verse television subscribers in portions of New York, northern New Jersey, and Connecticut that overlapped Cablevision's service area. One of several reasons for this lack of availability was an exclusive carriage agreement between MSNBC and Cablevision which prohibited competing wired providers from carrying MSNBC. The terms of the agreement were not publicly known.
In 2009 Verizon petitioned the FCC with a formal "program-access complaint" to terminate the deal. Connecticut attorney general Richard Blumenthal also argued that the arrangement could be illegal. After reaching a new contract, FiOS added the channel in New York City and in New Jersey on February 2, 2010.
MSNBC is shown only in the United States, Canada, South Africa, Kenya, parts of Latin America, and parts Of Northern Africa, and in most the time of Middle East (see below).
In 2001 a Canadian version with some local content, MSNBC Canada, was developed; the channel launched on September 7, 2001. However, it was soon discontinued in 2004, and the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission authorized the American version to be carried on Canadian cable and satellite providers. The channel was operated by Rogers Communications and co-owned by Rogers, Shaw and MSNBC, with each party owning a 33.33% voting interest in the service.
Programming included MSNBC programs as well as repeats of shows from the CBC and Cable Public Affairs Channel, as its way to fulfil its Canadian content requirements. The channel also ran infomercials, which the American service never shows.
In Southern Africa, MSNBC is distributed free-to-air on satellite on Free2View TV as MSNBC Africa, a joint venture between Great Media Limited and MSNBC. Free2View airs MSNBC's programming from 4 p.m. to midnight ET in a block that repeats twice (live for the first airing), with local Weather Channel forecasts. Botswana's national television broadcaster, BTV, also provides an un-edited broadcast of MSNBC (including advertisements) after their scheduled programming each evening. BTV is available within Botswana, as well as to Southern Africa viewers on DStv. TopTV, a satellite TV service in South Africa, also provides an unedited broadcast of MSNBC (including advertisements), which runs 24 hours a day. It is also available in Kenya and Uganda through the cable service Zuku.
MSNBC programming is shown for a most the hour a day on the 24-hour news network "OSN News".
In Asia and Europe, MSNBC is not shown on a dedicated channel. When MSNBC started in 1996, they announced plans to start broadcasting in Europe during 1997. This never happened. However MSNBC was seen occasionally on affiliate channel CNBC Europe. MSNBC was shown overnight at the weekend and during the afternoon on American public holidays as well as during breaking news events. MSNBC stopped being shown on CNBC Europe in the late 2000s and coverage of non-business related breaking news now comes from CNBC U.S.'s own coverage or from NBC News.
In Turkey, NTV-MSNBC is the news channel of the Turkish broadcaster NTV Turkey. The channel is a joint partnership between the two, although very little Turkish content makes its way onto English MSNBC. English content on MSNBC is translated to Turkish.
Launched concurrently with MSNBC was its website, msnbc.com; unlike the network itself, msnbc.com was operated as the general online news outlet of NBC News, partnering with Microsoft's MSN.com portal. The network and website also remained editorially separate; it did not adopt the network's increasingly liberal viewpoints (which itself was a cause for concern from NBC News staff, due to concerns that readers would think otherwise), and remained a joint venture with Microsoft even after it sold its stake in the MSNBC channel.
In July 2012, NBC acquired Microsoft's remaining stake in msnbc.com, and re-branded it as NBCNews.com. After being redirected to the new name for a period, msnbc.com was re-launched in 2013 as a website for the network itself, focusing on content such as opinion columns from hosts, correspondents and guests, and both live and on-demand videos from MSNBC programs.
In July 2014, msnbc.com launched msnbc2, a brand for several web-only series hosted by MSNBC personalities, in December 2014, msnbc2 was renamed shift, with a programming schedule which is less focused on politics and is more tailored to a younger audience.
The channel launched on XM Satellite Radio channel 120 and Sirius Satellite Radio channel 90 on April 12, 2010. This is the second time MSNBC has been available on satellite radio; the channel has been carried on XM before, but was subsequently dropped from the service on September 4, 2006.
MSNBC programming is currently simulcast on SiriusXM channel 118.
In November 2007, a New York Times article stated that MSNBC's prime-time lineup is tilting more to the left. Commentators have since described MSNBC as having a bias towards left-leaning politics and the Democratic Party. Washington Post media analyst Howard Kurtz has stated that the channel's evening lineup "has clearly gravitated to the left in recent years and often seems to regard itself as the antithesis of Fox News" (in reference to a number of journalists and political pundits considering Fox News to have a strong conservative bias). In 2011, Politico referred to MSNBC as "left-leaning," and Steve Kornacki of Salon.com noted that "MSNBC’s prime-time lineup is now awash in progressive politics." In reference to changes in the channel's evening programming, senior vice president of NBC News Phil Griffin has said that "it happened naturally. There isn't a dogma we're putting through. There is a 'Go for it.'"
In the February 2008 issue of Men's Journal magazine, a MSNBC interviewee quoted a senior executive who said that liberal commentator Keith Olbermann "runs MSNBC" and that "because of his success, he's in charge" of the channel. In 2007, The New York Times called Olbermann MSNBC's "most recognizable face". In September 2008, MSNBC stated that they were removing both Keith Olbermann and Chris Matthews as live political event anchors, and replacing them with David Gregory, due to growing criticism that they were "too opinionated to be seen as neutral in the heat of the presidential campaign." Olbermann continued to broadcast Countdown both before and after the presidential and vice presidential debates, and both Matthews and Olbermann joined Gregory on the channel's election night coverage.
On November 13, 2009, in the days leading up to the release of 2008 Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin's book Going Rogue, MSNBC's Dylan Ratigan used photoshopped pictures of Palin on the channel's Morning Meeting program. Ratigan apologized a few days later.
In October 2010, MSNBC began using the tagline "Lean Forward", which was described by some media outlets, including msnbc.com, as the network embracing its politically progressive identity.
In January 2012, MSNBC used Rachel Maddow, Chris Matthews, and other network commentators during coverage of the 2012 Iowa Republican caucuses, a move seen by Nando Di Fino of the Mediaite website as "giving up on the straight news coverage, and instead [appearing] to be aiming to create some controversy."
In November 2012, MSNBC was called "The Anti-Fox" by The New York Times in a feature article that quoted former President Bill Clinton as saying, "Boy, it really has become our [liberal] version of Fox." The article, citing data by the Nielsen TV ratings service, noted that while Fox News pulled in a larger overall viewership than MSNBC, the two networks were separated by only around 300,000 viewers among the 25–54 age bracket most attractive to advertisers.
In the Pew Research Center's 2013 "State of the News Media" report, MSNBC was found to be the most opinionated news network, with 85% of the content being commentary or opinions, and only 15% of the content being factual reporting. The report also stated that MSNBC spends the least amount of money producing its news, only $240 million in 2012, compared to CNN, which spent $682 million, and Fox, which spent $820 million.
Some Democratic Party supporters, most notably former Democratic Governor of Pennsylvania Ed Rendell and Clinton advisor Lanny Davis, criticized MSNBC during and after the 2008 Democratic primaries, as covering Barack Obama more favorably than Hillary Clinton. Rendell said, "MSNBC was the official network of the Obama campaign," and called their coverage "absolutely embarrassing". Rendell later became an on-air contributor to MSNBC.
A study done by the Project for Excellence in Journalism showed that MSNBC had less negative coverage of Obama (14% of stories vs. 29% in the press overall) and more negative stories about Republican presidential candidate John McCain (73% of its coverage vs. 57% in the press overall). MSNBC's on-air slogan during the week of the 2008 presidential election, "The Power of Change", was criticized as being overtly similar to Obama's campaign slogan of "Hope and Change". Following the 2008 presidential election, conservative talk show host John Ziegler worked on a documentary titled Media Malpractice.... How Obama Got Elected, which was very critical of the media, especially MSNBC's role, in the 2008 presidential election. While promoting the documentary, he engaged in an on-air dispute with MSNBC news anchor Contessa Brewer, on how the media, especially MSNBC, had portrayed Sarah Palin.
During MSNBC's coverage of the Potomac primary, MSNBC's Chris Matthews said, "I have to tell you, you know, it's part of reporting this case, this election, the feeling most people get when they hear Barack Obama's speech. My, I felt this thrill going up my leg. I mean, I don't have that too often." This led Fox News to assert that both he and MSNBC were biased toward Obama.
Phil Donahue's 2002 program Donahue was canceled in late February 2003 during the buildup to the Iraq War. Despite earlier claims of cancellation because of low ratings, Donahue was MSNBC's highest rated show that month.
A leaked NBC internal study revealed that the studio was concerned that Donahue would act as "a home for the liberal antiwar agenda at the same time that our competitors are waving the flag at every opportunity."
In June 2010, a documentary airing on MSNBC and hosted by Chris Matthews called Rise of the New Right drew significant criticism from some conservatives and the Tea Party movement. The documentary opened with Matthews stating: "Tea parties, birthers, patriot groups, militias. Their common cause: a raging hostility toward the elected government of the United States.... Their common enemy: the President of the United States, Barack Obama.... Tonight, a hard look at the rise of the New Right." The documentary features interviews with Dick Armey, the former House Majority Leader, Orly Taitz, a leading figure in the "birther" movement, and radio host Alex Jones. The documentary also showed the Michigan Militia's survival training camp and hit the campaign trail with Kentucky Senatorial candidate Rand Paul.
After the documentary aired, FreedomWorks, chaired by Armey, issued a letter calling for a boycott of Dawn and Procter & Gamble, which advertise during Hardball with Chris Matthews. The boycott was ineffective; Procter & Gamble continued to advertise with the show.
A study by the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism found that MSNBC's coverage of Mitt Romney during the final week of the 2012 presidential campaign (68% negative with no positive stories in the sample), was far more negative than the overall press, and even more negative than it had been during October 1 to 28, when 5% was positive and 57% was negative. On the other hand, their coverage of Barack Obama improved in the final week before the presidential election. From October 1 to 28, 33% of stories were positive and 13% negative. During the campaign's final week, 51% of MSNBC's stories were positive while there were no negative stories at all about Obama in the sample.
In his book Medium Blue: The Politics of MSNBC, Michael Arria wrote that the issue is not so much left wing or right wing as MSNBC and other media serving their own financial interests. Arria said that an example of ignoring news that threatens its own financial interests was that MSNBC was silent about the proposed Comcast-Time Warner Cable merger.
Political commentator Melissa Harris-Perry and her guest panel, in a look back on 2013 segment on her show, featured a picture of former Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney and his extended family. Mr. Romney was holding on his knee his adopted grandchild, Kieran Romney, an African-American. Harris-Perry and her guests, including actress Pia Glenn and comedian Dean Obeidallah, joked about coming up with captions for the photo. Glenn sang out, "One of these things is not like the others, one of these things just isn’t the same." Obeidallah said, "It sums up the diversity of the Republican Party and the [Republican National Committee], where they have the whole convention and they find the one black person." Afterwards, Harris-Perry issued an apology in a series of Tweets.
MSNBC has repeatedly been accused of airing material, including inaccurate maps, that some observers regard as anti-Israel.
During the spring and early summer of 2003, MSNBC featured a weekend talk show hosted by conservative radio host Michael Savage. In July of that year, Savage responded to a prank caller on his show by calling him a "pig" and a "sodomite", and telling him he "should get AIDS and die." Savage's show was canceled and Savage was fired from the channel shortly afterward (with some reports placing the termination immediately after the episode in question ended).
In early April 2007, Don Imus, whose radio show Imus in the Morning was simulcast on MSNBC for over ten years, described members of the Rutgers University women's basketball team as "some nappy-headed hoes." The comments sparked outrage, as many considered them to be racist and sexist. After sponsors began to withdraw advertisements from the show, MSNBC canceled the simulcast. Imus, as well as NBC News, apologized to the Rutgers Basketball team for the remarks. The television simulcast of Don Imus' program later moved to RFD-TV until August 2009 and then to Fox Business Network until May 2015.
On November 5, 2010, MSNBC President Phil Griffin suspended Keith Olbermann indefinitely without pay for contributing $2,400 (the maximum personal donation limit) to each of three Democratic candidates during the 2010 midterm election cycle. Contributions to political campaigns, under NBC News policy, are not allowed without prior permission. On November 7, 2010, Olbermann posted a thank you message to supporters via Twitter. That same day, MSNBC announced that he would be back on the air starting on November 9.
Two weeks later, Griffin announced the suspension of Joe Scarborough for the same offense, as the Morning Joe host had donated $4,000 to Republican candidates in Florida. Like Olbermann's suspension, Scarborough's suspension was brief, and he returned to the airwaves on November 24. On January 21, 2011, MSNBC announced that Olbermann would host his final show that same night.
Host Martin Bashir resigned after making a controversial comment about Sarah Palin. On November 15, 2013, Bashir criticized Palin for comments that she made comparing the Federal debt to slavery. Bashir attempted to counter Palin's comparison by referencing the cruel and barbaric punishment of slaves described by slave overseer Thomas Thistlewood, specifically a punishment called "Derby's dose" which involved forcing slaves to defecate or urinate into the mouth of another slave as punishment. Bashir then concluded by saying "When Mrs. Palin invokes slavery, she doesn’t just prove her rank ignorance. She confirms if anyone truly qualified for a dose of discipline from Thomas Thistlewood, she would be the outstanding candidate."
Alec Baldwin's 2013 show Up Late with Alec Baldwin was suspended after five episodes due to a homophobic slur Baldwin made to a photographer in New York City.