You know you're in trouble when the best program on your 'all-news' cable channel is actually a radio show. Worse, it's not even some outrageous radio show, such as Howard Stern or Phil Hendrie, but one that features some guy in his 60s wearing a cowboy hat and making fun of the 'idiots and weasels' who are running your operation.
That's where Jeffrey Immelt, General Electric Co.'s chief executive, finds himself every morning when he joins the dozens who tune into the floundering MSNBC cable network.
Lord knows, MSNBC's got the pedigree: It's a joint venture between NBC (whose parent company is GE) and Microsoft. But to say that it's getting swamped in the ratings is putting it mildly: Fox News Channel and CNN can hardly make out 'America's News Channel' in their rearview mirrors.
With the exception of the morning simulcast of Don Imus' radio show, MSNBC's programming is sinking faster than the Blazers' one-fan-at-a-time campaign. The most recent debacle is the six-month run of 'Donahue,' which has failed to catch on against attitude-driven Bill O'Reilly on Fox and even the much more benign Connie Chung on CNN.
On top of that, MSNBC finally figured out that viewers were tired of Ashley Banfield's eyeglasses and dumped the once-rising star and her breathless, globe-trotting show.
Even big NBC news stars such as Tom Brokaw and Katie Couric have stayed away from appearing on MSNBC, no doubt reasoning that their only audience would be the studio crew. So what's the deal here?
The problem is that while CNN has carved its much-deserved niche as the breaking news network and Fox's visually flashy but politically conservative style has corralled the talk-radio crowd, MSNBC is sinking in the image quicksand. It tries to appeal to everybody and excites nobody. Night after night, the network combines the charisma of an employee benefits manual with the edginess of a Clapper commercial.
So the solution is obvious: Do what nobody else is doing in cable news. Become irreverent and hip. Go get people along the lines of Bill Maher and Jon Stewart and put on shows along the lines of 'Politically Incorrect' and 'The Daily Show.'
Go after a younger crowd who thinks Fox is full of right-wing bluster and CNN is only a test pattern waiting for war to break out. There's a news audience that isn't being served Ñ and deserves to be.
Dare I say it? Have some fun Ñ when it's appropriate. And when it's not Ñ get out the 'Breaking News' graphic and cover the news.
Until then, the suits at GE will keep on stewing Ñ waiting for Phil Donahue to reclaim the magic he once had and wondering if they could talk that guy in the cowboy hat into renaming the show 'Imus in the Evening.'