The New Adventures of Old MSNBC

The last time I wrote about Dan Abrams, I recalled his coverage of the OJ Simpson trial over a decade ago. Ironically enough, OJ seems to have risen from his murky depths just as the network Abrams is running has reached a crossroad. After the midterm election coverage, it was the consensus that MSNBC had finally found its niche as a "haven for political junkies." While there doesn't seem to be plans to make MSNBC a 24-hour political news channel, one of the bigger changes made under Abrams' leadership - the documentaries - seems to take a step back into a sensationalistic, crime-centric, tabloidy direction.

Wait a second - MSNBC finally finds a direction and I still have to see hours of "Lockup"? Some may attribute this to the fact that naming a former legal affairs correspondent was the direct cause for this effect. When appointed in June, Dan Abrams had no executive experience and had been famous for onscreen coverage of some of the most closey watched legal cases ranging from wacko celebrities to deciding the country's president. Heads were definitely scratched, and during his first six months as MSNBC's General Manager, the network definitely hit a few bumps in the road. However, significant changes have been made, most visibly the change in the primetime lineup - no more Rita Cosby, an "unplugged" Joe Scarborough and two hours of taped programming, which turned out to be repeats of crime-centered shows. For a while there, it seemed as if MSNBC was flailing around in the dark trying to find a direction to follow. Then came the spotlight they needed in the form of midterm elections, and a voice was found.

But now MSNBC is running ads announcing new episodes for the "Doc Block." Is the network an old dog that can't be taught new tricks? Generally, there are bad reactions to the over-coverage of crime-related news. The public and the media decried the now-thankfully-defunct OJ Simpson "non-confession confession" for being a pretty ghastly stunt, giving even more exposure to a highly unsavory former defendant. Then again, if the ratings are to be believed, this might be the best mindless chaser after the primetime political programming. So like it or not, get ready for more caught-on-tape, prison rape, small-town murders and hired hits-a-go-go!

But let me clarify why I'm so dismayed by the return to infotainment. MSNBC has been in the news lately itself, and not for its blockbuster interviews that weren't. The ratings are up, especially in the 25-54 demographic. (That would be THE demographic.) It even looks as though they are taking away from Fox News Channel's audience. This climb began before the midterm elections, but the success was definitive afterward. Leading up to the midterms, Abrams scrapped regular daytime programming twice and handed over the network to some of its and NBC's most skilled political commentators and broadcasters to cover the most watched midterm election since 1994. The day of the election itself, MSNBC stronghold hosts Chris Matthews of "Hardball" and Keith Olbermann of "Countdown" anchored the news desk and tallied the results until the wee hours of the morning. (And, in an indication that it might be turning away from its lighter fare, Cosby was nowhere in sight). The achievement of this midterm coverage gave MSNBC enough positive press that any hiccups have been forgotten or forgiven.

However, now that the honeymoon is over, let's talk about primetime. Sure, MSNBC has taken a political turn, and that's great for political junkies like me who have already formed political opinions and have established myself as a faithful MSNBC viewer. But anyone taking a look at the primetime lineup for the first time is bound to notice something missing: diversity. Cosby's tabloid show was canceled, and that left more room for serious programming (save "Oddball" and "Joe Unplugged"), but it also left the lineup without any women. With a two-hour opening, why not replace her with Alison Stewart, who currently hosts "The Most" in the afternoon? Oh, right. The women have been mostly designated to daytime, save Norah O'Donnell's occasional guest hosting duties on "Hardball." If this isn't the case, it certainly looks like it is, given the wasted opportunity and the lack of female panelists in primetime. At least they're not all young, peppy blondes (see Contessa Brewer, Stewart, O'Donnell)?

Still on the subject of diversity are political opinions. Let's be honest: none of the current MSNBC anchors in primetime are covering politics objectively. MSNBC has a galaxy of opinions amongst its stars. Scarborough and his and formerly be-bowtied colleagueTucker Carlson are unabashed conservatives, Keith Olbermann has been waxing liberal in his series of Special Comments and Chris Matthews will go after anyone he pleases. Nothing is wrong with any of that (especially Matthews - take that, Michelle Malkin!), but why the obvious tip towards conservative hosts? Sure, they have guests to provide counter-arguments, but they certainly don't have the same authority as a host. Watch any of the hosts above: Who gets the last word?

So this is where MSNBC primetime stands: A political niche found + still hanging onto infotainment + 100% white male (50% conservative, 25% liberal, 25% Chris Matthews) = ratings getting higher. But is this really a tried and true formula? The midterms were just a few weeks ago, and Abrams has only been GM for about six months. I have a cousin about that age, and we're not exactly forcing her to start running marathons. But if she wasn't making any attempts at progress, we would all be rather concerned. Abrams' MSNBC is still in its infancy, and maybe we should just keep an eye on it for a while. But here's hoping it'll outgrow "Crimetime in Primetime" sometime soon. Baby steps, MSNBC, baby steps.