There was no smirk to Keith Olbermann on January 21 that day. Mr. SportsCenter had made the switch. He had become Mr. News, Mr. Serious.
Live from the set of "Third Rock from the Sun," where he was slated to chat with lead alien John Lithgow, Olbermann barely raised a bushy brow about the refrigerator, complete with plastic banana magnets, behind him.
Clad in his signature square glasses and pinstriped oxford, the 39-year-old fledgling news interview show host skipped the quips and stuck to the story: Monica Lewinsky and President Clinton. "There was actually a moment in which there was a total metamorphosis from an entertainment and news based program into just a White House show," says Olbermann. "The Big Show," the former ESPN king's news adventure, seemed instantly bigger.
Since its birth last fall, the average number of households tuning in to the 8 p.m. show has jumped from 80,000 in October to 128,000 in January and 219,000 in February.
"He's so quick with facts and side comments that he can relate whatever you're talking about to something, and you'll say 'Yeah, that's right,' " says Executive Producer Phil Griffin. "That's why the show is taking off faster than we thought it would. Plus, having a major story come along the timing was perfect."
Olbermann, who scored tip-top marks by injecting pop culture and historical references and attitude into ESPN's sports highlight show "SportsCenter" (see "His Way," September 1997), has no complaints, to say the least. "The audience interest has been phenomenal," says Olbermann. "We seem to have struck some sort of chord."
To shift gears from news to sports, Olbermann had just enough time to warm his new MSNBC seat before the biggest White House scandal since, yes, Watergate broke. Says MSNBC Managing Editor and his newfound friend Brian Williams: "He's an astoundingly quick study... They say you have to have 'it' to make it and to make a connection with viewers. He's got more of 'it' than many, many people I could name in the business."
Has the news guy arrived? "There's no question that he's made the transition to straight news from sports," says Los Angeles Times TV critic Howard Rosenberg. "He's always had that capacity... The bigger question is how seriously any of these shows can be taken. My own feeling is not a lot. They join the indistinguishable buzz on television on any particular topic."
Loyal viewers are the key, Williams says. "This is a niche business. Our advantage is we know who our viewers are," he says. "If you find Keith on at 8 or me at 9 it's because you want to find us. If Tom Brokaw is a B-52, I'm a sniper."
Even before the Lewinsky story broke when Olbermann covered El Niño's wrath and Rep. Sonny Bono's death and Latrell Sprewell's suspension, like every other news organization the hook of "The Big Show" was its fresh look at news, says Griffin. "We're not going to try to be all things to all people as we may have been at the start," he says. "Our goal is to keep growing and to get people to see Keith. The best thing we can do is sell Keith."
Washington Post national political editor Maralee Schwartz, for one, is sold. Schwartz, who hadn't heard of Olbermann until January, says she tries to "check in" with him nightly. "He keeps things en pointe," she says. "He tries to avoid interpreting he likes to ask other people to do the interpreting for him."
With days of "that's a double play if you're scoring at home..or if you're by yourself" and "real men don't taunt" in the past, Olbermann's cheeky side frequently surfaces in his new role as planned. "His approach to sports wasn't that of a jock; his approach to news isn't that of a Beltway insider," says Griffin.
But Boston Globe media critic Mark Jurkowitz waxes nostalgic for Olbermann the sports guy. He says Olbermann "looks miscast" and adds that he doesn't "think the kind of attitude and wise-aleckness he brought to ESPN on most nights is a great fit for a news show. I just don't like the idea of Olbermann doing news. I want him to do sports highlights. I miss him."
Tough. Because for now Olbermann's forgotten the Final Four and the Stanley Cup. He's trying to distill and dissect the stormy events of the day.
Rather than offering up a smattering of topics and a handful of guests, as the show did early on, Griffin likens its current approach to an early "Nightline" a couple of guests who address the day's news in a "very serious, intense, smart discussion," sometimes with a wink.
Keith Olbermann's news show on MSNBC focuses heavily on the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal.