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MSNBC has a precedent for giving short shrift to major stories that have erupted on weekends.

In November, critics chafed when the network bailed on wall-to-wall coverage of the Mumbai terrorist standoff.

But executives have also proved they are willing to drop their usual plans in certain situations: On April 12, when an American skipper was rescued from Somali pirates, MSNBC broke into its regular programming with live coverage.For its part, the network defended its handling of the Iran crisis, saying it was ready to spring into action if the situation there escalated further."We were monitoring the situation closely and decided that we would cover the situation with hourly updates," MSNBC spokesman Jeremy Gaines wrote in an e-mail response to questions.

"We had an anchor and crew standing by."He also dismissed the suggestion that the coverage plans were dictated by financial considerations, although he did not provide specifics.As for the taped shows, "these programs generate higher viewership for us on weekends" than other types of programming, Gaines added.But given the intensity of the reaction elsewhere, MSNBC's decision over the weekend struck many as puzzling."I was surprised they did not break into their air for Iran coverage," said Marvin Kalb, a former CBS newsman and a senior fellow at the Joan Shorenstein Center at Harvard University.

"It's one of the great stories of our time, and something the American people need to know about."Typically, the tape strategy poses few problems, as news tends to slow on the weekends.

But there has been nothing typical about the violence that has seized Iran, a country in flux since the disputed presidential election June 12.Saturday saw the protests reach a climax, with gory amateur video that purported to show the death of 26-year-old Neda Agha-Soltan ricocheting around the Web and into the mainstream media within hours.While the MSNBC documentaries tend to do better than news coverage during non-crisis times, they are by no means huge ratings grabbers.On Saturday, Fox News drew an average of 1.3 million total viewers for its Iran-heavy coverage, beating the combined totals of CNN (639,000) and MSNBC (359,000).

Smith's 8 p.m.

hour averaged 1.5 million, making it the weekend's most-watched cable news program, according to Nielsen Media Research.Gaines pointed out, however, that MSNBC beat CNN among viewers ages 25 to 54, the most-favored demographic in the news business.,0,4163349.story
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