MSNBC was launched on July 15, 1996. The first show was anchored by Jodi Applegate and included news, interviews, and commentary. During the day, rolling news coverage continued with The Contributors, a show that featured Ann Coulter and Laura Ingraham, as well as interactive programming coordinated by Applegate, John Gibson, and John Seigenthaler. Stories were generally longer and more detailed than the stories CNN was running. NBC also highlighted their broadcast connections by airing stories directly from NBC's network affiliates, along with breaking news coverage from the same sources. MSNBC gradually increased its emphasis on politics. After completing its seven-year survey of cable channels, the Project for Excellence in Journalism said in 2007 that, "MSNBC is moving to make politics a brand, with a large dose of opinion and personality."
In January 2001, Mike Barnicle's MSNBC show started, but it was canceled in June 2001 because of high production costs. In June, Microsoft chief executive officer Steve Ballmer said that he would not have started MSNBC had he foreseen the difficulty of attracting viewers. After the September 11, 2001 attacks, NBC used MSNBC as an outlet for the up-to-the-minute coverage being provided by NBC News as a supplement to the longer stories on broadcast NBC. With little financial news to cover, CNBC and CNBC Europe ran MSNBC for many hours each day following the attacks. The year also boosted the profile of Ashleigh Banfield, who was present during the collapse of Building 7 while covering the World Trade Center on September 11. Her Region In Conflict program capitalized on her newfound celebrity and showcased exclusive interviews from Afghanistan. In the aftermath of September 11, MSNBC began calling itself "America’s NewsChannel" and hired opinionated hosts like Alan Keyes, Phil Donahue, Pat Buchanan, and Tucker Carlson; This branding makeover, however, was followed by declining ratings.
On December 23, 2005, NBC Universal announced its acquisition of an additional 32 percent share of MSNBC from Microsoft, which solidified its control over television operations and allowed NBC to further consolidate MSNBC's backroom operations with NBC News and its other cable properties. (The news website msnbc.com remained a separate joint venture between Microsoft and NBC for another seven years.) NBC later exercised its option to purchase Microsoft's remaining 18 percent interest in MSNBC. In late 2005, MSNBC began attracting liberal and progressive viewers as Keith Olbermann began critiquing and satirizing conservative media commentators during his Countdown With Keith Olbermann program. He especially focused his attention on the Fox News Channel and Bill O'Reilly, its principal primetime commentator. On June 7, 2006, Rick Kaplan resigned as president of MSNBC after holding the post for two years. Five days later, Dan Abrams, a nine-year veteran of MSNBC and NBC News, was named general manager of MSNBC with immediate effect. NBC News senior vice president Phil Griffin would oversee MSNBC while continuing to oversee NBC News’ Today program, with Abrams reporting to Griffin.
On June 29, 2006, Abrams announced the revamp of MSNBC's early-primetime and primetime schedule. On July 10, Tucker (formerly The Situation with Tucker Carlson) started airing at 4 p.m. and 6 p.m. ET (taking over Abrams' old timeslot), while Rita Cosby's Live & Direct was canceled. Cosby was made the primary anchor for MSNBC Investigates at 10 and 11 p.m. ET, a new program that took over Cosby and Carlson's timeslots. According to the press release, MSNBC Investigates promised to "complement MSNBC's existing programming by building on [the channel's] library of award-winning documentaries." The move to taped programming during 10 and 11 p.m. probably resulted from MSNBC's successful Friday "experiment" of replacing all primetime programming with taped specials. On September 24, 2007, Abrams announced that he was leaving his general manager position so he could focus on his 9:00 p.m. ET talk show, Live With Dan Abrams. Oversight of MSNBC was shifted to Phil Griffin, a senior vice president at NBC. MSNBC's studio in NYC... The MSNBC studio... MSNBC and NBC News began broadcasting from their new studios at NBC's 30 Rockefeller Center complex in New York City on October 22, 2007. The extensive renovations of the associated studios allowed NBC to merge its entire news operation into one building. All MSNBC broadcasts and NBC Nightly News originate from the new studios. More than 12.5 hours of live television across the NBC News family originate from the New York studios daily. MSNBC also announced new studios near the Universal Studios lot. MSNBC's master control did not make the move to 30 Rock. It remained in the old Secaucus headquarters until it completed its move to the NBC Universal Network Origination Center located inside the CNBC Global Headquarters building in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, on December 21, 2007. Shortly thereafter, Major League Baseball firmed up a long-term lease of the former MSNBC building to become the home studios of MLB Network, which launched from the facility on January 1, 2009.
To help revive the struggling network, MSNBC in the summer of 2015 started transitioning from left-leaning, opinionated programming to hard news programming. Nearly all daytime opinionated news programs were replaced with more generic news programs. Ronan Farrow, Joy Reid, Krystal Ball, Touré, Abby Huntsman, Alex Wagner, Ed Schultz, and Al Sharpton lost their shows. News programs presented by established NBC News personalities such as Telemundo anchor Jose Diaz-Balart, Meet the Press anchor Chuck Todd, Sunday NBC Nightly News anchor Kate Snow, Thomas Roberts, and former NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams replaced the opinion shows. The revamped on-air presentation debuted in late summer 2015 and included a new logo, news ticker, and graphics package. MSNBC Live had at least eight hours of programming each day, barring any breaking news that could extend its time. Daytime news coverage was led primarily by Brian Williams, Stephanie Ruhle, Jose Diaz-Balart, Andrea Mitchell, Craig Melvin, Thomas Roberts, and Kate Snow, in addition to "beat leaders" stationed throughout the newsroom. These included chief legal correspondent Ari Melber, primary political reporter Steve Kornacki, business and finance correspondent Olivia Sterns, and senior editor Cal Perry. Morning and primetime programming did not change and remained filled mostly by opinionated personalities. In April 2016, MSNBC launched a promotional ad campaign with the theme, "in order to know beyond, you have to go beyond." The campaign portrayed MSNBC's reporting and perspectives as "in depth" and an alternative to "talking points" coverage on other cable news outlets. In July 2016, the network debuted Dateline Extra, which was an abridged version of Dateline NBC and another step towards aligning MSNBC and NBC News. The new program was hosted by MSNBC Live anchor Tamron Hall. In September 2016, MSNBC launched The 11th Hour with Brian Williams as a nightly wrap-up of the day's news and a preview of the following day's headlines. This was MSNBC's first new primetime program in nearly four years. In January 2017, MSNBC debuted a program in the 6 pm EST hour entitled For the Record with Greta, hosted by former Fox News Channel anchor Greta Van Susteren. The program aired for six months before being cancelled in late June 2017. The network promoted Chief legal Correspondent Ari Melber to host The Beat with Ari Melber at 6pm. In March 2017, MSNBC began to increase its use of the NBC News branding during daytime news programming, as part of an effort to emphasize MSNBC's relationship with the division. On May 8, 2017, MSNBC introduced a new late-afternoon program, Deadline: White House, hosted by NBC political analyst former White House communications director Nicolle Wallace. That month, MSNBC became the highest rated American cable news network in primetime for the first time. MSNBC's increasing viewership was accompanied by declining numbers at Fox News Channel. MSNBC's May 15–19 programming topped the programming of both CNN and Fox News in total viewers and viewers 18-49. On April 16, 2018, MSNBC premiered a new early morning program, Morning Joe First Look, to replace Way Too Early. The same day, MSNBC also retired its on-air news ticker, citing a desire to reduce distractions and "[put] our reporting more front and center". On March 2, 2020, Chris Matthews abruptly announced his resignation from Hardball effective immediately. The 7 p.m. hour was hosted by rotating anchors until July 20, when it was replaced by The ReidOut with Joy Reid. On December 7, 2020, MSNBC announced that Rashida Jones would succeed Griffin as president in 2021. Jones stated goals to increase the network's investment into documentary-style programs, and to have viewers "clearly understand" the differences and value of its news-based and analysis-driven programming, as both were "critical to our future success", and "need to exist in a clear and compelling form on every single platform where news consumers go." As part of this remit, Jones named separate senior vice presidents for news programming and "perspective and analysis" programming. In January 2021, MSNBC had its highest-rated week ever in the wake of the 2021 storming of the United States Capitol, exceeding the ratings of Fox News for the first time since 2000. On March 29, 2021, MSNBC introduced a refreshed logo and on-air imaging, including a rebranding of its MSNBC Live rolling news block as MSNBC Reports (in support of Jones' goal of clearer separation between news- and analysis-based programs).