MS/NBC: After 9 Years, Filing For Divorce

By Brian 

Bill Gates, July 15, 1996: “We’re looking forward to our shared vision of taking news and software and integrating them together.”

Bob Wright, July 15, 1996: “[MSNBC is] a powerful and exciting and compelling interactive medium that will challenge and change the ways people get their information.”

Mark Harrington, MSNBC GM, July 13, 1996: “It’s astounding the commitment our two companies have made in just six months’ time.”

It just wasn’t meant to be. In GE’s 1995 annual report, Bob Wright touted MSNBC as the new “24-hour news and information cable channel and a comprehensive interactive on-line news service.” He said “these ventures will form a cornerstone of NBC’s aggressive cable and multimedia strategies.”

At a press conference, Bill Gates beamed that MSNBC would “empower people to get their news in new ways.” They invested heavily in it: “Microsoft contributed $500 million to the channel’s startup and pays the company tens of millions of dollars in licensing fees each year to use its video on its Web network,” says today.

But five years later, the partners were beginning to rethink their decision. “Rumblings over a change of heart in Redmond first appeared in 2001,” BetaNews says. “Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer said in an interview in June of that year that he would likely have not started MSNBC if he had a chance to do things over again.” Here’s a timeline of the more recent rumors.

Perhaps one prediction from 1996 turned out to be true, though. MSNBC was intended to be a “bridge” between television and the Internet, the Boston Globe said at the time. When pressed to predict “how people will watch news on the day his contract expires in 2002,” then-NBC News president Andy Lack guessed that “there will be as many people getting their news from MSNBC on line as from cable, and maybe many, many more. Arguably, it may be two, three, five times more.”

Annette Cardwell, Boston Herald, July 16, 1996: “On July 15, MSNBC took to the airwaves at 9 a.m. as promised, but the all-important interactive web site was down until 10:30 a.m. (said to be because Microsoft workers had ‘loaded too much information into the site’).”

Don Crabb, Chicago Sun-Times, July 18, 1996: “The cachet of MSNBC is supposed to be its mixed-media synergy. So far, the only thing clear is that the MSNBC cable network and its news shows share only a passing acquaintance with the MSNBC Web site.”

Frank Rich, New York Times, July 26, 1996: “For all the hip hard-sell, MSNBC may have as little bearing on that cyberfuture as ‘Howdy Doody’ did on MTV.”