MSNBC’s Dan Abrams’ War of Faith Against CNN

No matter what, Mr. Abrams’ days of pulling double duty at MSNBC are numbered. Mr. Abrams says that he can’t continue to supervise news coverage and do a prime time show for much longer. Soon, he will choose. He declined to say in which direction he was leaning.

“I’m having a lot of fun doing nine o’clock,” said Mr. Abrams, who began running MSNBC programming in June 2006 when NBC News president Steve Capus gave him the gig, despite his lack of executive experience.

At the time, Mr. Capus said that Mr. Abrams would help to differentiate MSNBC from Fox News and CNN by trimming down its live talk shows and increasing taped, documentary-style series. Specifically, he suggested that MSNBC would incorporate programming from NBC’s Dateline, which was racking up big numbers with the pedophile-snaring program, “To Catch a Predator.”

This July, MSNBC announced that it was beating CNN in overall viewers during “prime sales” time, from 7 p.m. to 2 a.m.

For most of the summer, CNN staffers remained remarkably disciplined in the face of Mr. Abrams’ continued ridicule. But in early August, CNN unleashed opposition research showing that during July not a single episode of the MSNBC’s prime time talk shows had made it into the channel’s 25 most popular telecasts. Rather, 19 of the 25 most watched shows on MSNBC were NBC’s “To Catch a Predator” episodes. Rounding out the top 25, were true-crime documentaries such as Scenes from a Murder, Lady in the Lake, and Cops Caught on Tape.

CNN spokesperson Christa Robinson shot back. She told Multichannel News, “It’s easy to get ratings if you go down-market and run tabloid docs, ad nauseam, like MSNBC is doing with 40 hours of “To Catch a Predator” over the weekend. That’s not how we program CNN. We run real reporting by CNN journalists.”

Roughly three weeks later, Mr. Abrams slammed God’s Warriors.

“The fact that CNN is now frantically trying to explain why they are getting beaten by MSNBC really tells the whole story,” said Mr. Abrams.

All of which raises the stakes considerably this fall as both channels retool. In mid-October, CNN will fill the 8 p.m. vacancy left by Paula Zahn, with a new show hosted by Campbell Brown. CNN is hoping that Ms. Brown will make up some of the ground on MSNBC’s monumentally successful Countdown with Keith Olbermann.

MSNBC sees an opportunity at 9 p.m., where Larry King beats Live With Dan Abrams by a sizable margin. At the same time, MSNBC must grapple with their morning show, where CNN Headline News’ Robin & Company recently beat MSNBC for the first time in more than two years.

At night, MSNBC plans to air more than two dozen original crime documentaries, including When Forensics Fail, The Mind of Manson and Lock-up: San Quentin-Extended Stay, which the producers describe on their Web site as a “docu-soap.”

Reese Schonfeld, the co-founder of CNN, says he’s impressed with MSNBC’s progress, particularly among young viewers. “They’ve made a lot of gains there,” said Mr. Schonfeld. “I think Abrams can crow and is doing it and why not? When you’re creeping up on the other guy, then you want to let the whole world know about it, particularly advertisers.”

Mr. Schonfeld said MSNBC’s crime docs are alternative programming, “the most important thing you can do in this business. … There’s an awfully large appetite out there for tabloid stuff. I think they’re going to do fine.”

As for Mr. Abrams, he said he had the “same fighting spirit as the general manager as I do hosting the TV program,” said Mr. Abrams.

“I think,” he said, “CNN is going to be in real trouble in the fall.”