Keith Olbermann’s Uphill Climb
Can the voluble TV host lure viewers to his obscure new cable home? Posted: Thurs, June 16, 2011
By Greg Masters
Since abruptly leaving MSNBC in January, Keith Olbermann has used Twitter to stay in touch with fans and, in what he calls "Batting Practice With Clowns," trade jabs with taunting detractors in the Twittersphere.
Greg Masters (firstname.lastname@example.org) is an AJR editorial assistant.
Last week, for example, a Twitterer with just 12 followers called Current TV, the obscure cable channel where Olbermann's new nightly program will premiere Monday night, a "fake network." That got Olbermann's attention.
"Are you in 60,000,000 American homes? We are," his testy response read.
As chief news officer as well as host at the network, which former Vice President Al Gore and businessman Joel Hyatt cofounded in 2005, Olbermann envisions a primetime lineup of news and analysis shows, special election coverage and, eventually, "world domination," according to an Associated Press interview published last week. (Olbermann and Current TV did not respond to interview requests for this article.)
Sixty million, though, is a far cry from the 95 million households that receive MSNBC. And Current TV's average daily audience is just 50,000, a tiny fraction of Olbermann's MSNBC audience. Given those numbers, can the aggressively and unapologetically liberal Olbermann build an audience for his own show (which, like the old one, is called "Countdown with Keith Olbermann"), let alone an empire?
"There's no person that I can point to who has accomplished what Olbermann is trying to do," says Brian Stelter, a media writer for the New York Times. "I can't think of anyone else who has taken their show, transported it to another network and succeeded when the network is as small as Current TV."
Stelter sees a parallel between Olbermann and Oprah Winfrey, whose eponymous network launched January 1. "Oprah's message has been, 'Give us time. It's going to take years.' And I think Olbermann would be wise to start saying the same thing. Because for him, too, if he's going to develop an audience at Current, it's going to take years."
"He is trying to make lightning strike a third time," says Eric Deggans, a media critic for the St. Petersburg Times, alluding to Olbermann's eight-year run at MSNBC and his popular turn as a sportscaster on ESPN's "SportsCenter." The Olbermann/Dan Patrick pairing played a big role in ESPN's rise and had a huge impact on sports broadcasting in general. His fiery, left-leaning program on MSNBC gave the long-struggling cable news also-ran an identity and a larger audience. Deggans says he sees Current TV as "a lower-profile landing place for Keith."
His fame and popularity, paradoxically, could prove to be disadvantages at the beginning, Deggans argues. "One of the problems with hiring a big star is that everybody's paying attention to you the second you debut, and most people can tell you good TV shows take a while to evolve." At MSNBC, Deggans says, Olbermann "had many years to develop the style of 'Countdown,' and the first couple of years of 'Countdown' were very different than what that show eventually became when he left it."
"The whole world is going to be watching on June 20," Deggans adds, "and no matter how good Keith is, he's not going to be as good on June 20 as he will be on August 20 or September 20."
But Michael Calderone, a media reporter for the Huffington Post, says Olbermann just might pull it off. "I think he has a little bit of an uphill climb in bringing viewers over," he says. "But Keith is such a huge name that he might be the type of anchor who can bring people to a network that is bringing in significantly less viewers at eight o'clock every night."
Calderone says Olbermann's use of Twitter is reminiscent of the strategy of TBS late-night host Conan O'Brien, whose tweeting helped him hold onto his fan base after he left NBC. "I think [Olbermann has] been smart in keeping a lot of his fans interested in what he has to say," Calderone says. "We'll see if he's able to translate that sort of interest and enthusiasm he has online into actual viewers to a network that doesn't bring in a huge audience in primetime every night."
Of course, the show's success depends not just on there being an audience but also on Olbermann's sticking around. His departure from "SportsCenter" was abrupt. He left other jobs, including a first stint at MSNBC, after short runs. His eight years hosting "Countdown" on MSNBC were often stormy, with Olbermann sometimes threatening not to come to work, according to a New York Times Magazine profile posted this week. Things may have come to a head when Olbermann was suspended last November for donating money to Democratic candidates.
"Keith has a long history of going to places and doing great work, and being unable to stand the management where he's working," Deggans says. "The two sides tolerate it until it gets to the point where it can't be tolerated and he leaves."
Stelter says he thinks Olbermann's eccentricities will be less of an issue at a low-profile venue like Current TV. "I think Current will be even more tolerant of Olbermann than MSNBC was. I really do," he says. "Because they need him more desperately than MSNBC needed him."
The context is different, too, since Olbermann has editorial control at Current TV. "Countdown" on MSNBC, Deggans points out, was a "cog in the NBC Universal machine, and it was still just a part of NBC News. There was a whole overlay of standards and practices and management that went beyond MSNBC."
"Now," Deggans says, "he's at a place where he is the biggest star at the channel. There is no larger news hierarchy he has to deal with. They have given him an executive title that gives him the kind of control that he wants. I don't know who his boss is at Current, but they seem to be trying to create a little fiefdom where he can do what he wants. The question is: Is that enough for him? Who knows."
Calderone agrees: "I don't think Current will keep him on a tight leash."
That's a problem in the eyes of David Zurawik, a TV critic for the Baltimore Sun. Zurawik, who has been one of Olbermann's "Worst Persons in the World" several times, says Olbermann could become a "reckless force" without editorial oversight.
"Keith Olbermann, I think, is one on-air personality who I definitely think needs some on-air oversight," Zurawik says. "He has this tendency, this pattern, of going off and saying really reckless, irresponsible, even slanderous things. And then if the blowback is too much, then he apologizes for it."
Zurawik adds, "He doesn't seem to understand the seriousness of the quasi-journalistic position he inhabits when you're doing the kind of 24/7 cable news hosting show he did."
Jack Shafer, a media writer for Slate, has a very different take on Olbermann, whose work he says most definitely is journalism. "He reports. He interviews. He writes. He synthesizes. Anchoring is an act of journalism. So I would say Olbermann, when he comes to work, does practice journalism."
Despite his distaste for Olbermann's style, Zurawik concedes it can be successful. "There is an audience for watching people go off and over the top on television, especially in that forum. That's one of the reasons people tune into Olbermann."
And there's no doubt, he says, that Olbermann will bring many more viewers to Current TV. "Of course he's going to improve those ratings. He's going to improve them phenomenally."
And, says Deggans, one thing is clear: Current TV knows precisely who it has recruited. "There is no more informed hire in media than what just happened. Keith Olbermann's departure from MSNBC has been meticulously detailed. He has a long history. Those folks at Current know exactly what they're getting into."