NBC, Microsoft Getting Online Divorce

NBC and Microsoft plan to announce a deal to finally part company, with the network buying back the remainder of their hugely popular MSNBC website from the software giant, say people familiar with the matter.

Under the plan, officials will rebrand MSNBC.com, which consistently ranks among the top three in online news sites, as NBCNews.com. The announcement of the corporate divorce is expected within days, although there could always be a last-minute snag.

"We're absolutely having those conversations, but there is no deal," an NBC spokesman said Wednesday.

The cable channel MSNBC was originally a joint venture between the broadcast network and Bill Gates’ company—hence the initials in the name—but the television partnership was dissolved in 2005. The companies, however, remained 50-50 partners in the website.

NBC executives have grown frustrated at not having sole control of the MSNBC website, which does original reporting as well as aggregating content from the AP, Reuters, New York Times and elsewhere. At the same time, as the MSNBC channel has forged a separate identity as the liberal home of Rachel Maddow, Chris Matthews, Ed Schultz and others, the company has worried about the brand confusion caused by its straight-news site bearing the same name. And the cable channel has lacked a site solely devoted to pushing its personalities.

Two years ago, NBC and Microsoft held serious negotiations about changing the name of MSNBC.com to alleviate that confusion. Once Microsoft withdraws, NBC may create a second site with the MSNBC name simply to promote the cable channel’s offerings.

Under the current plan, say people familiar with the matter, Charlie Tillinghast, the chief executive of MSNBC.com, would continue to run the site. But he would presumably move off Microsoft’s campus, along with the roughly half of the website’s 300 employees who are also based in Redmond, Wash.

MSNBC.com is considered to be quite profitable, in part because it draws as much as half its traffic from Microsoft’s MSN network. Part of the deal, say those in the know, calls for Microsoft to continue to steer some traffic toward the rebranded site.

While NBC maintains no deal is in place, website employees have already been briefed on the plans and how they will be affected.