NBCU Exploring Buyback of MSNBC.com

Executives looking to push more of cable voice onto the Web

Chris Matthews must be getting that tingling feeling down his leg again. He and his colleagues may soon have a giant news site to call their own.

That’s because NBCUniversal is in serious negotiations with Microsoft to buy back MSNBC.com. Several sources with first-hand knowledge of the situation say that negotiations between the two companies have progressed to the stage where NBCU parent company Comcast is conducting its due diligence. They said that the partnership could be unwound by this summer.

Both the MSNBC network and MSNBC.com were launched as a joint venture between NBC and Microsoft in 1996 during the Web’s early emergence as a news vehicle. In 2005, NBC purchased the majority of Microsoft’s stake of MSNBC, which has since morphed into a liberal alternative to Fox News, populated by opinionated hosts like Matthews and Rachel Maddow. Two years later, NBC owned the network outright.

But MSNBC.com has remained a joint venture, while maintaining a distinct personality from the network. While the site is populated with Today Show and NBC News content, it's far more of a general news outlet than its TV counterpart.

As recently as two years ago, there were reports that MSNBC.com would rebrand in order to distinguish itself from the cable net’s left-wing persona. But apparently, under the Comcast reign, the company is more interested in using MSNBC.com to further its network brand. “It drives those guys crazy that they can’t have personalities like Maddow and company on the Web more,” said a source. However, most insiders know that MSNBC.com couldn’t pull in 55.7 million uniques (comScore, April 2012) with Maddow and Matthews alone. The site benefits heavily from its prominent placement on the MSN portal, and that’s something NBCU will be hesitant to give up.

Thus, according to one source, the companies are likely to negotiate a deal ensuring that MSNBC.com secures real estate on MSN.com—similar to the current treatment Fox Sports receives.

It's not clear at the moment what will happen to MSNBC.com's employees. The company has never maintained a large content staff; however, the site's president and CEO, Charlie Tillinghast, is a prominent name in the Web publishing world, having recently served as the chairman of the Online Publishers Association.

Officials from MSNBC.com and NBCU declined to comment.