A Brief History Of MSNBC.com And NBCNews.com

By Alex Weprin 

Way back in the 20th century–1996 to be precise–Microsoft and the National Broadcasting Corporation decided to team up and create a new entity, MSNBC.

On TV, MSNBC would be a 24-hour news channel with a technology and interactive twist. Online, MSNBC.com would be a chance not only to showcase news from NBC News, but also to let Microsoft experiment with new ways of content delivery and interaction.

At the time, Microsoft was the most powerful technology company in the world, and NBC was for all intents and purposes the number one TV company in the world. MSNBC.com benefited from its parents, and quickly became an online news juggernaut. As a result of the deal and to help boost traffic, NBCNews.com, which NBC owned, redirected to MSNBC.com.

For years, the success of the website kept both companies happy, even as the cable channel puttered along without making a major impact. That changed in the early 2000’s, when Microsoft–long a computer software company–suddenly became wary of being in the TV content business. Likewise, NBC was upset that MSNBC continued to languish in the ratings, and the agreement with Microsoft meant that there was less flexibility to experiment and tweak the format.

In 2005, NBC acquired Microsoft’s stake in the MSNBC TV network. Discussions at the time also breached the idea that either Microsoft or NBC would acquire sole ownership of MSNBC.com. The site was so powerful, however, that for the time being, they decided to maintain the status quo. Microsoft wasn’t interested in being in the TV business, but a well-trafficked website was right up their alley. Staff would be split between Washington and New York, with staffers for the site effectively working for both companies.

MSNBC the cable channel began to turn things around in 2007 and 2008, with a focus on politics and opinion in primetime. While this was great for the channel, it was the beginning of the end for the Microsoft-NBC partnership online.

Slowly, chinks in the armor began springing up inside MSNBC.com’s headquarters in Redmond, Washington, and NBC’s headquarters in New York. The other TV networks had caught up to MSNBC.com in the digital space, and the site–while still tremendously powerful–no longer had anything resembling a monopoly on news.

Some NBC News staffers were upset that they didn’t have the flexibility that CBS News or ABC News had to present their content on their respective sites. Others were not happy that they had to share the space with a political, opinionated cable news channel.

Some MSNBC staffers were upset that they couldn’t showcase their hosts as well as CNN or Fox News could, and that the site couldn’t represent the network’s “brand” as well as the competition.

Neither NBC News nor MSNBC was happy with how their content was being presented on the site.

Talks to acquire MSNBC.com began in earnest earlier this year. By March, it became apparent that a deal would get done, and more people were brought into the loop to discuss what the next steps would be. Late that month, AdWeek‘s Mike Shields reported that the two sides were negotiating, noting that a deal seemed close. That same day, following Shields’ report, I reported that the end result of that deal would be NBCNews.com, where NBC News content would live, and MSNBC.com, which would become a home for the cable news channel and its hosts.

The two sides continued negotiating through late June, when all that was left was to tie up some loose ends, go over the fine print, write the contracts and get them signed. MSNBC.com staffers, NBC News staffers, and MSNBC staffers were briefed on what the changes would mean for them, assuming there were no hiccups in the final talks.

On Friday, executives for NBC and Microsoft signed the contracts in Building 25 on Microsoft’s Redmond campus, and the deal was done. 16 Years after Microsoft and NBC decided to partner on a cable news channel and website, the final cord connecting the companies in the venture was cut. Also for the first time in 16 years, NBC had a place to put its news brand front and center at NBCNews.com.