The short answer, for those who haven't figured it out on their own, is that MSNBC has moved to Comcast channel 81. Well, sort of. It's on channel 81 for customers with the kind of digital converter box that Comcast told its lucky customers in countless pre-digital-switch advertisements they wouldn't be needing. For basic expanded cable viewers without a box, MSNBC has been moved to Channel 105. That means that fans of Keith Olbermann and Rachel Maddow who currently only have expanded basic are probably going to require an upgrade. The big question, obviously, is “Why only MSNBC?” Why not CNN? Why not Fox News?
Comcast customers who call the cable giant's Memphis office to find out why they now need a digital box to keep watching MSNBC have been getting answers ranging from “Government regulation” to “We're phasing out analog cable.” After being told there was nobody in management who could field questions and explain the decision in detail, one customer service rep told the Flyer that the decision to move away from expanded basic and into cable box-only territory was made by the network. MSNBC, she said, thought it would be “beneficial.” MSNBC says none of this true.
“The decision to move MSNBC to 105 was entirely Comcast's,” a spokesperson for MSNBC countered, making it clear that MSNBC would prefer to have as many viewers as possible and that this move was in no way beneficial to the brand. "MSNBC wasn't notified until after the change was made," she said.
This switch isn't exclusive to Memphis. MSNBC is gradually being moved up the virtual dial in other markets across the country. The change comes on the heels of recent news and noise about an alleged plan negotiated between Fox News mogul Rupert Murdoch and executives at MSNBC's parent company GE to end the ongoing feud between MSNBC's liberal anchor Keith Olbermann and his conservative counterpart, Fox's Bill O'Reilly. Although Olbermann has denied that any such agreement was made and has since taken a few potshots at O'Reilly and Fox, his comments are currently available to fewer sets of eyes and ears.
These kinds of changes tend to be about money and seldom if ever have anything to do with political content. Determining which networks are on which channels in which markets can be roughly compared to grocery stores that carry a variety of beers but will cut a deal to give one brand premium placement, another the end cap, and special Super Bowl display for a third. Only the process isn't nearly so straightforward. MSNBC's spokesperson would not go into details about what it costs to get good placement, or how that value is determined and accounted for, but said she was in constant negotiations with Comcast to assure that MSNBC has good centralized placement in every market and is available to as many viewers as possible.