Why NBC U Wants Rosie

Comcast, by far the nation’s largest cable operator, is kicking MSNBC to a digital tier in markets like Pittsburgh, Connecticut and Portland, Ore,, making it that much harder for the ratings-challenged network to make inroads against News Corp.’s Fox News Channel and Time Warner’s CNN. A digital tier only reaches digital subscribers, cutting out the analogue-only homes and in turn, cutting into ratings. At the end of Q3, 61% of Comcast’s 24 million TV subscribers had digital service.

A NBC U spokesperson said the call was “100% Comcast’s decision” and “we believe [MSNBC] should be offered in every basic cable package.”

Hiring a big-name talent like Rosie O’Donnell in primetime might make Comcast, and perhaps other cable operators, think twice before making similar moves elsewhere. MSNBC has a primetime tentpole in Keith Olbermann at 8 p.m., who has buzz and ratings, and is a solid No. 2 behind FNC’s Bill O’Reilly. But MSNBC hasn’t been able to build other stars around him.

Adding O’Donnell, while a long-shot, would create a formidable left-leaning block of programming, an opinionated alternative to Fox News’ O’Reilly and “Hannity & Colmes.”

Why wouldn’t they do it? Rosie’s pricetag, probably. Olbermann, MSNBC’s highest-paid host, just re-upped at $4 million a year, and NBC U gave him a gig on NBC’s “Sunday Night Football” to help amortize that salary bill. O’Donnell could likely earn at least $10 million a year hosting a syndicated daytime show, so any potential deal with NBC U would have to have more elements than just a talk show on MSNBC.

Enter the fourth hour of “Today,” which is cleared across almost all NBC affiliates but hasn’t been a force in the ratings. NBC U could slot O’Donnell’s show at 11 a.m. in most markets and produce it alongside her MSNBC talk show in NBC News’ studios at 30 Rock.

Even that wouldn’t likely give her the mega salary or ownership of the show, which she would get in a syndication deal. But sources inside the syndication business believe that if O’Donnell was going to land a syndication deal, it would have already happened. ABC booted her from “The View” in May, after all.

NBC U has other reasons to want to bring her into the family. It named Conan O’Brien as Jay Leno’s replacement on “The Tonight Show,” but pointedly did not name Carson Daly to replace Conan when he re-upped earlier this year. It could be cable and daytime today and a segue into latenight in 2009.

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