NBC Universal and Microsoft, the parents of msnbc.com, are holding high-level talks about changing its name, an unusual and potentially risky endeavor for the third most popular news Web site in the United States.
The two parents have not yet agreed on what to call the site. But according to internal memorandums obtained by The New York Times this week, the parents have concluded that the brand known as msnbc.com, a strictly objective news site, is widely confused with MSNBC, the cable television channel that has taken a strongly liberal bent in recent years.
Charlie Tillinghast, the president of msnbc.com, wrote in one of the memos, “Both strategies are fine, but naming them the same thing is brand insanity.” The channel and Web site are already separate companies.
Under the current plan, the msnbc.com Web address would become a site exclusively for the cable channel, fulfilling the channel’s desire to have an independent site to promote its TV programs. The existing news site, called the “blue site” internally, would move to a new and as-yet-undetermined Web address. There is a subsection on msnbc.com for the cable channel.
The network of Web sites under the msnbc.com umbrella are visited by almost 50 million Internet users each month, according to the measurement firm comScore. Only two news brands, Yahoo and CNN.com, are bigger.
Andrew Heyward, a former CBS News president and an adviser to media companies on digital strategy, said the renaming idea had merit. “It’s incredibly important in this media cacophony for brands to be consistent, for brands to stand for something,” said Mr. Heyward, who has advised NBC in the past. “And those two brands, each strong in their respective areas, are increasingly standing for different things.”
Corporations change their names from time to time (Andersen Consulting became Accenture, Philip Morris became Altria, Blackwater became Xe) but giving up a Web address as popular as msnbc.com is highly unusual. It is akin to a business closing a bustling storefront and posting a sign that asks customers to visit its new location.
For a Web site, at least, the new location is only a click away. “You can quickly redirect people who might be confused,” Mr. Heyward said. Nonetheless, msnbc.com risks sacrificing years of brand loyalty by coining a new name.
Researching names ...
NBC, which is in the process of being sold to Comcast, and Microsoft have been conducting research about potential new names for the last few months. “Consensus in this case is a tall order,” Mr. Tillinghast wrote in one of the memos.
A board meeting that had been scheduled for the end of October to talk about the change was delayed until mid-November.
One of the new names under consideration is NBCNews.com — something that NBC would seem to favor — but the companies are testing entirely new names, as well, the memos show. The question seems to be: Should they go with a trusted and recognized name like NBCNews.com or try to build a fresh new brand?
In a statement Wednesday, Mr. Tillinghast said, “We have an enviable portfolio of news brands and routinely have strategic conversations about how to maximize them.”
(The Times and msnbc.com have an agreement to share some articles and video.)
The change is being contemplated because MSNBC and msnbc.com are on somewhat divergent paths.
They were founded together in 1996 by NBC and Microsoft, with the cable television channel based in New Jersey and the Web site based at Microsoft’s headquarters in Redmond, Wash. In 2005, NBC bought Microsoft’s stake in the cable channel, but the two parents remained together for the Web site, which is a crucial provider of content to Microsoft’s MSN.com portal.
Employees at msnbc.com work closely with employees of MSNBC and NBC News. But the Web site has its own reporters, editors, producers, photographers and advertising sales staff. And those employees have at times felt as if they were stuck in the shadow of the cable channel.
In recent years, MSNBC’s shift to the left, with hosts like Keith Olbermann and Rachel Maddow, has further complicated the TV/Web relationship. This week, the channel introduced a splashy ad campaign and a new tagline, “Lean Forward” that reinforces the opinionated nature of the programming.
The cable channel has been looking for a way to distinguish itself online; the channel’s president, Phil Griffin, briefly discussed the acquisition of The Huffington Post earlier this year, but was rebuffed by its co-founders, as first reported by New York magazine this week.
Meanwhile, msnbc.com has remained what Mr. Tillinghast called in Tuesday’s memo an “impartial news product.”
He wrote that the “Lean Forward” announcement “only exacerbates the brand misalignment problem” that he had been trying to solve. He envisions a “brand family,” with the to-be-renamed Web site positioned at the head of the table, joined by two existing spinoff sites, one for NBC’s “Today” show and one devoted to breaking news alerts. But first msnbc.com’s family has to agree on a new name.