The two partners don’t seem like a natural fit.
NBC has been in the news business for 40-some years. Microsoft Corporation has been running an on-line computer news bureau for about a year.
One is a TV network with celebrity reporters and editors; the other is primarily a West Coast software firm where employees work in T-shirts and use buzzwords like “content” and “apps.”
On Monday, the two companies unveil MSNBC, a cable-Internet partnership that could be the sign of things to come. Or yet another media-frenzy fizzle-and-burn.
Why would the TV empire join forces with the Redmond-based software giant?
The answer, said Peter Neupert, Microsoft’s vice-president in charge of the MSNBC project, is a vision for the future, not profits.
He said the goal is to start delivering interactive technology that gives users active control over the news and information they’re using.
Microsoft realized two years ago that it needed to find a presence on the Internet. More than just a vehicle for exchanging e-mail, it wanted an operation that gave the PC crowd much greater freedom in selecting what they wanted from the Internet, when they wanted it.
That led to forming MSN last summer, Bill Gates’ challenger to America Online and other on-line computer services.
But Gates, Neupert and others realized that MSN by itself didn’t have the clout or wide appeal to seriously compete in the news and information segment of that industry.
That’s where NBC entered the picture.
The two firms realized a partnership gave them “a set of skills that neither side had by themselves,” Neupert said.
The net result is a two-headed beast that Neupert admits is brand new, still untamed and essentially trying to figure out its methods on the fly.
Beast One is MSNBC Cable, which has been designed to not look or feel like any other all-news cable channel.
Unlike CNN, MSNBC Cable will avoid a headlines and clock-driven approach. It will have news anchors and reports, using some of the newscasts generated by the network’s big guns, like Tom Brokaw, Bill Moyers or Bob Costas.
After 7 p.m., it turns to four one-hour segments devoted to interviews, technology, politics and current affairs.
Meanwhile, there’s Beast Two - MSNBC on the Internet where PC users can look at stories or maps related to current news, or simply drive around looking for information that suits their needs.
Because the starting point will be on the World Wide Web, visitors can head off, searching for information across the globe, then heading back to the Redmond computer base of MSNBC on the Internet.
For instance, if another Freemen episode erupts in Montana, editors in charge of MSNBC on the Internet would lay out a selection of sites that give information beyond what was available on the cable channel’s newscast. It might, for example, direct users to Internet home pages of TV stations or newspapers that sent reporters to cover that story.
The philosophy will be that both halves of MSNBC will find ways to send viewers back and forth - using the cable channel for strong video and live reports, using the online service for depth and background information.
Some of that depth would come, possibly, from Spokane, where KHQ-TV (Channel 6) is NBC’s area affiliate.
Once KHQ-TV puts up its own home page this fall, that location would be identified for users of MSNBC on the Internet.
In that case, viewers seeing a story about the Montana freemen on MSNBC Cable would then connect to MSNBC on the Internet for more information.
There they’d get directed to KHQ-TV’s Internet site.
At that point, their computers could download and view parts of video from that evening’s KHQ newscast of events in Montana.
Staffing MSNBC’s Redmond part of the operation are more than 50 reporters and editors who will stay in contact with the East Coast MSNBC operations base in New Jersey.
Nearly all are print and TV journalists who’ve decided they’re comfortable in the new medium of on-line news.
Managing the technology in an on-line-cable TV partnership is easier than people first thought, said Neupert.
“We have ongoing, real-time connection between the people in Redmond and those in New Jersey,” Neupert said.
The harder challenge, agreed Neupert, is coordinating the cable-news and the Internet halves of the formula.
“We’re learning as we go. It’s been balls to the wall on this since we signed the agreement in December,” he said.
“But there’s nobody else out there who’s done this. Our policy here is ‘try it, do it, fix it,”’ he said.
Another wrinkle will be the occasional use of computer software applications (apps) to help on-line users find a personal spin on the news, Neupert said.
MSN tried, during the spring Republican primaries, to give its on-line users a way of testing how Steve Forbes’ flat tax would affect their income.
On the computer, the user would enter pertinent income data, then find out what the likely outcome of a flat tax would be.
Similar efforts will occur, but they’ll be the exception, not the rule, said Merrill Brown, the managing editor of the MSNBC on the Internet in Redmond.
“We’re working on being very careful about what we put out, and not abusing the fact that we can gather tons of information, some of which may have limited value” for Internet readers, he said.
, DataTimes MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: MSNBC MSNBC Cable can be seen on Channel 49 for viewers who subscribe to Cox Cable in Spokane. It replaces the Nostalgia Channel. Computer users can find MSNBC on the Internet at http://www.msnbc.com