* MSNBC could use coverage to galvanize audience
* Critics says networks too positive in reporting
By Paul Thomasch
NEW YORK, Oct 12 (Reuters) - Just as Fox News has staked out the conservative Tea Party movement as a pet topic, the unabashedly liberal MSNBC television news network appears to be doing the same with the Occupy Wall Street protests.
Experts say MSNBC's strategy could pay dividends for the cable outlet: The protests could draw liberals to their TV sets and turn up-and-coming hosts such as MSNBC's Ed Schultz into stars heading into the 2012 presidential elections.
"Big events turn careers, we've seen that throughout journalism history," said Rich Stockwell, executive producer of Ed Schultz's show on MSNBC, one of the first national programs to broadcast from Zuccotti Park, the lower Manhattan site of the Wall Street protests .
Stockwell brushed off critics who say Schultz is cheerleading for the demonstrations against greed.
It's not just MSNBC that is devoting more air time to the protests. Liberal commentator Keith Olbermann, who hosts a show on the Current network founded in part by former Vice President Al Gore, has been featuring the protests since their earliest days. And, after a slow start, coverage by mainline outlets like ABC, NBC and CBS has sharply picked up.
Across cable, the anti-Wall Street protests received 12 times more coverage last week than the previous week, according to early estimates from the Pew Research Center. Coverage by the broadcast networks rose 5 percent.
Conservative media groups complain reporting on the protests has been far too upbeat, in contrast to what they say has been unfairly negative reporting on the Tea Party.
"The networks are certainly focusing on Occupy Wall Street more than they did the Tea Party when it got off the ground," said Brent Baker of the Media Research Center. "They have been almost completely ignoring any critics. The coverage has been almost totally promotional."
Fox is owned by Rupert Murdoch's News Corp . MSNBC is a venture of Microsoft Corp and NBC, the broadcast network controlled by Comcast Corp. . CNN is a unit of Time Warner Inc and ABC is a unit of Walt Disney Co. .
The protesters make no mystery of where they stand. When Fox's Geraldo Rivera reported from the park, he was taunted with chants of "Fox News lies!" MSNBC's Schultz and Tamron Hall were greeted much more warmly.
But its remains to be seen if MSNBC can use its popularity with liberals and its coverage of the demonstrations to win viewers who will stick around once the protests end, particularly the 18- to 34-year-olds advertisers favor.
TV news is struggling to find its way in the new media world. Not only are they battling one another for audience, they have stiff competition from Facebook, Twitter and Google.
Industry observers say in the aftermath of the 2008 election and the departure of Olbermann, MSNBC has needed a jolt. Last month, it averaged 269,000 viewers aged 25-54 during prime time, just 12,000 more than CNN. Both trail Fox.
"MSNBC has a problem because of the apparent split in liberal ranks between those who believe Obama has stayed true to his message and those that think Obama has not been a great help to their causes," said Richard Wald, a professor at Columbia Journalism School. "Once an audience splits, it isn't as neatly predicable as it used to be."