CNBC Dances in the Muck As Andy Lack Cleans Up

He may never earn the trust of Tom Brokaw and his blue-chip buds at 30 Rockefeller Plaza. And, O.K., maybe he shouldn’t have crowed to a TV Guide reporter about being the “news anchor for the next millennium” at NBC. But like it or not, CNBC’s Geraldo Rivera is one big reason NBC owns the Monica Lewinsky story like no other news organization.

As with CNN’s coverage of the Persian Gulf War, it’s hard to think “Lewinsky” without visualizing one or more of the small army of NBC correspondents reporting from one of the front lines-the White House, the Federal courts-seemingly round the clock. But try remembering where you last saw one of them. Chip Reid? He was on the Today show. Or was it MSNBC? No wait, that was Claire Shipman. She was chatting with Don Imus. Or maybe Ed Gordon.

Does it really matter? They’re all working for the Peacock, and they’re all reporting, analyzing, yakking about one thing: the Big Lewinsky. With two cable channels and a raft of top-rated shows on the broadcast side, working together in almost eerie concert, NBC has the resources to flog the Lewinsky story like no one else. And when NBC flogs, people watch.

On the cable side, they are watching Mr. Rivera, whose Rivera Live has arguably turned around CNBC’s troubled prime-time lineup. Just four years ago, he and his colleague John Gibson built a following of loyal viewers for their nightly updates on the O.J. Simpson case. Today, Mr. Gibson is an anchor on MSNBC and, beginning Aug. 24, Mr. Rivera will command 90 minutes each night on CNBC. With the new Geraldo show, CNBC, with headquarters in Fort Lee, N.J., has transformed itself from a bazaar of eclectic programming-remember sex talk with Bob Berkowitz?-into a nearly continuous Lewinsky backchannel. Besides the two Rivera shows, former political aide Chris Matthews and Mr. Brokaw’s replacement anchor Brian Williams fill one hour apiece on the CNBC nighttime schedule.

The results speak for themselves. CNBC’s ratings in prime time are up more than 50 percent over last year. Rivera Live , the highest rated nightly program on CNBC, was watched on average in 567,000 households in July while Hardball With Chris Matthews is up 147 percent from last year.

The Lewinsky story has also been a boon to NBC’s broadcast side. Meet the Press , the top-rated Sunday morning show, has seen its ratings spike by 30 percent or more when there are developments in the case-larger than any other Sunday show’s increase. Dateline , which is adding a fifth night in the fall-that Stone Phillips is indefatigable! -now has two editions that are in the top 20 among viewers ages 18 to 54, an unheard-of achievement for a newsmagazine.

The one exception, curiously, is the NBC Nightly News , the throne to which Mr. Rivera aspires. Mr. Brokaw’s broadcast is still No. 1, but its ratings are actually down since the big story broke.

Perhaps the biggest beneficiary of NBC’s Lewinsky synergy has been low-rated MSNBC, which has doubled its 11 P.M. audience since the Lewinsky story broke. Even though total average viewership is low (about 100,000 households on average), MSNBC remains a marvel of modern marketing. All NBC News programs, even Dateline and Nightly News , use “msnbc.com” as their address on the Web, just to promote the site as often as possible on-air. One measurement survey, conducted by Media Metrix, claims the MSNBC site is the most-accessed address on the Internet.

And Mr. Imus, a CBS Radio personality whose morning program is simulcast on MSNBC, wallpapers his show with NBC News talent and refers to MSNBC’s coverage continually on the air-even Keith Olbermann’s show, which he detests.

A Tangled Web

Two years ago, MSNBC was the ballyhooed successor to NBC’s unsuccessful America’s Talking cable channel. The idea was to bring headline news to the digerati with young-skewing panel discussions, Internet-related programming and plenty of Microsoft money.

That all went out the window two days after MSNBC signed on, when Trans World Airlines Flight 800 crashed. By the time of the Princess of Wales’ death, 13 months later, MSNBC had been transformed from a news-and-cyberculture channel into-well, America’s Talking!

To see how MSNBC, CNBC and NBC work together, let’s say a development in the Lewinsky probe occurs early on a Tuesday. By the time Mr. Brokaw takes to the air that evening, the talking heads on MSNBC will have discussed it for upward of 10 hours. If there’s any reporting needed, Mr. Reid or perhaps Ms. Shipman’s colleague at the White House, David Bloom, will supply it live to MSNBC, then create packages for Nightly News . Mr. Brokaw will report the story, then promote NBC’s continuing coverage on Dateline and MSNBC. Mr. Williams will extend the story into the evening on his one-hour MSNBC newscast, which is repeated on CNBC. Next, Messrs. Rivera, Matthews and Olbermann will keep the ball bouncing late into the night. The next morning, Mr. Imus will hash it out some more-perhaps with Tim Russert of NBC’s Meet the Press . A tangled web, indeed.

Under NBC News president Andy Lack, the entire news organization has been Dateline d so that every program, from Today on, has compelling human interest stories alongside NBC’s traditional hard-news reporting. And if you can do both at the same time-say, by reporting on a semen-stained dress-all the better!

“Of the three broadcast networks, NBC is the one with the most consistent journalistic house style throughout all dayparts,” said Andrew Tyndall, whose industry newsletter, Tyndall Weekly , analyzes the nightly newscasts. “You don’t know from watching Good Morning America what’s going to be on Nightline , but you do know from watching the Today show what the agenda is going to be on Nightly News and Dateline .”

That consistency means the beast need never go hungry. It was to Today show superhunk Matt Lauer, after all, that Hillary Clinton first spoke of that “vast, right-wing conspiracy,” and where Matt Drudge raised the question of the DNA-loaded garment. (Mr. Drudge also made a celebrated appearance on Meet the Press .)

Dateline leads all network news magazine shows in Lewinsky stories (30) this year, more than the next three combined. (According to The Tyndall Weekly , the three nightly newscasts give roughly the same level of coverage to the Lewinsky story.)

In the end, what’s bad for Ms. Lewinsky may turn out to be very good for NBC. The broadcast side and CNBC are already nicely profitable. But someday, MSNBC could surpass them all. It showed growth this year even in the months when Lewinsky coverage wasn’t sizzling. MSNBC’s audience level has doubled this year from an 0.2 Nielsen rating to 0.4. Doesn’t sound like much? “A 1 rating in cable is great,” said John Higgins, assistant managing editor at Broadcasting Cable magazine. “Right now, they can measure their audience in tens of thousands. When they get up into the hundreds of thousands, they’ll make a shitload of money.”

CNBC Dances in the Muck As Andy Lack Cleans Up