At the crossroads of journalism and technology.

MSNBC - So What's the Point?

by Tom Houghton

So there's this television network and this software company. And the one says to the other, "Wouldn't it be cool to get together and stick some news on the WorldWide Web and link to a cable channel?". Sounds like the start of some unbelievable shaggy dog story (do you have shaggy dog stories in the US?) doesn't it but, as we all know, this is exactly what NBC and Microsoft have done, creating the originally named MSNBC. So what does each of these two massive firms get from the deal and, perhaps more importantly, what do we, the general public, get from it?

Since I am a member of the general public it might be best to start by addressing this question before I begin to use my newly acquired business skills to analyze what the business benefits might be.

What Joe Public gets is 'not a lot that he couldn't get elsewhere'. What we see on the web is a newspaper style format not dissimilar to the other newspapers that are out there (NYT, SF Chronicle etc.); that is to say not very inspiring. There is the usual mix of news, comment, sport and features, with the occasional exclusive (yeah, right, you and all the others) all purveyed in a fairly slick manner. The most interesting aspects for me were the links to some pretty interesting websites (Russia Web, CIA File on Hong Kong) and the database showing campaign contributions given to candidates in the upcoming elections (nice interactive touch this, map of US, list of candidates, list of contributors). There were some links to audio clips, which without exception failed to work, and to video clips which my terminal was unable to access because it didn't have the software. In fact there were a worrying number of errors which surprised me given the fairly high profile of the site.

But the most striking thing for me was the lack of any significant connection with the TV side. Perhaps this is a little unfair given the fact that I could not access the audio/video clips which I presume come from the cable footage used on TV. There is a link called "On Air Highlights but this is no more than a glorified TV Guide.

Overall judgement: Could do better.

But what of the business benefits. One imagines that for NBC the link with Microsoft might give it access to the latest technology in terms of web servers and browsers. However, Microsoft is far from being a leader in the field at present and NBC could perhaps have obtained this knowledge elsewhere. For Microsoft the advantages are probably in gaining experience with providing content on the web, a stated goal of Bill Gates in his vision of the firm's future. Whilst this may indeed be a benefit, it is unclear to me whether the benefits are so great when the content provided is so uninspiring and so close in nature to other sites. The business argument seems to be primarily one of synergies the provision of complementary assets. It is unclear to me whether there are real synergies to be had. Within the media industry in general this has been a key theme and there has a been a tremendous amount of consolidation not much of it to the benefit of either consumers or businesses. The driver is stated to be the nebulous idea of media convergence although no one seems to be able to clearly dfine what this is. Perhaps the next few years will confirm the benefits of firms in different areas of media coming together as the notion of convergence becomes more clear.

My impression is that Microsoft and NBC, like many other firms at present, are throwing out content onto the web without considering what the benefits economically really are. There seems to be a notion that if you're not on the web you're falling behind and it's better to be there with something poor than not at all. This may indeed be a genuine benefit for firms in the long term but when the product is characterised by a stream of errors and the content appears ill thought out it is hard to see how this is advantageous to business success. Firms might do well to consider in more depth what it is they are putting out on their web sites rather than throwing out any old thing just to prove they are there. The opening line of the Yahoo!/Reuters news item "On the Internet the Future is Nigh" is a telling one. Internet content really is more sizzle than substance in general and unfortunately MSNBC contributes more sound and fury than anything else. It ultimately signifies, if not nothing, then certainly not a lot.