WE MIGHT have seen this coming. On Wednesday night, as Keith Olbermann signed off his Current TV news and analysis program “Countdown With Keith Olbermann,” there was none of his usual snarky closing remarks thanking the audience “for surviving another day of this crap.” He didn’t ritually wad up a sheet of paper and throw it at the camera; the customary broken-screen graphic (timed to Olbermann’s throw at the lens) never appeared.
On Wednesday, Olbermann closed with seven words, tersely delivered, by a man with his mind obviously somewhere else. “That’s ‘Countdown.’ I’m Keith Olbermann. Good night.” Fade to black.
We might have seen it coming back on Dec. 5, when, less than six months after going on the air on Current TV, “Countdown” went dark. Literally. A blown fuse suddenly dimmed the lights on the set of the fledgling show, pitching Olbermann into near darkness as he was beginning a segment on “Occupy politics.”
This was apparently no mere glitch; something in the vast electrical bowels of the Current studio in Manhattan had gone awry that night and stayed wrong. For days stretching to weeks. It finally got to where the sparsely-lighted Olbermann made a virtue of the situation. It was all somehow part of the voice-in-the-media-wilderness shtick that Olbermann had laid claim to for years.
To the Viewers of Current:
We created Current to give voice to those Americans who refuse to rely on corporate-controlled media and are seeking an authentic progressive outlet. We are more committed to those goals today than ever before. Current was also founded on the values of respect, openness, collegiality, and loyalty to our viewers. Unfortunately these values are no longer reflected in our relationship with Keith Olbermann and we have ended it. …
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With that, Olbermann was fired from Current TV, his contract terminated slightly more than a year after he was hired, for reasons of breach of contract and what one Current insider called “sabotage.” This time, unlike when Olbermann made his valedictories before leaving MSNBC in January 2011, KO got no chance for goodbye commentary. His last Current “Countdown” was Wednesday night; various reports say the hammer dropped sometime on Thursday morning.
Fast forward exactly 24 hours. On Friday night, Current debuted its new show in the Olbermann time slot: “Viewpoint With Eliot Spitzer,” featuring the disgraced former New York governor at the helm of his second talk show in two years (in 2010, he was tapped to co-host a news and commentary show on CNN with conservative columnist Kathleen Parker; that show died the death last year).
It all happened so fast, DirectTV didn’t even have time to reprogram the title graphics on its channel lineup. At least, it all appeared to happen fast.
“We are confident that our viewers will be able to count on Governor Spitzer to deliver critical information on a daily basis,” Gore and Hyatt wrote.
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KO took to the Twitterverse, offering his side of what happened with an Olbermannesque explanation, vitriol dispensed 140 characters at a time:
“It goes almost without saying that the claims against me in Current's statement are untrue and will be proved so in the legal actions I will be filing against them presently. …
“[J]oining them was a sincere and well-intentioned gesture on my part, but in retrospect a foolish one. That lack of judgment is mine and mine alone, and I apologize again for it.”
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ON PAPER, it all looked so ... right. Olbermann, long chafing under the saddle of his corporate masters at MSNBC (and their corporate masters at the newly reconfigured NBCUniversal) was cashiered from his “Countdown” perch at MSNBC in January 2011. But he emerged, almost phoenix-like, with a new and potentially game-changing offer to transform Current TV, a fledgling user-generated-content network launched in August 2005 by hotel magnate Joel Hyatt and Al Gore, the popular-vote-determined 43rd President of the United States.
For Current, nailing Olbermann down gained the documentary-driven network needed gravitas in the news arena, as well as one of the more recognized faces in electronic media. "It is the first thing Current TV has done since launch to put itself on the map,” said Larry Gerbrandt, principal at Media Valuation Partners, to Georg Szalai of The Hollywood Reporter, in 2010. “It's been a non-factor in terms of programming … for the first time, this puts Current on the map as a real player,"
Olbermann got out of the chute OK. He set the tone for the new “Countdown” on the first show, on June 20, 2011. “This is to be a newscast of contextualization,” he said at the beginning, “and it is to be presented with a viewpoint: that the weakest citizen of this country is more important than the strongest corporation; that the nation is losing its independence through the malfeasance of one political party and the timidity of another; and that even though you and I should not have to be the last line of defense, apparently we are.”
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In February 2011, The Hollywood Reporter reported that “Current averaged 18,000 homes in primetime for fourth quarter 2010, lower than any other network measured by Nielsen.” This after being on the air for almost five years; and accessible in 60 million homes.
Stelter in The Times: “In his 40 weeks on Current TV, he had an average of 177,000 viewers at 8 p.m., down from the roughly one million that he had each night on MSNBC. Just 57,000 of those viewers on any given night were between the ages of 25 and 54, the coveted advertising demographic for cable news. Still, Mr. Olbermann ranked as the highest-rated program on Current.”
He’s been nothing if not consistent: The Associated Press, extracting from Nielsen Company figures, reported that on the night the new “Countdown” launched in 2011, the program pulled in 179,000 viewers between 25 and 54 — about eight times the previous average for Current TV at that hour.
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AND THEN it all started going south. Keith Olbermann has a reputation for doing difficult to work with and to work for. David Carr, a reporter for The New York Times and a man with some personal knowledge of Olbermann, distilled the general perceptions of KO’s personality in a blogpost on Saturday:
“Mr. Olbermann is talent, and a big baby to boot — any reporter who has covered him could tell you all about that — so the idea that he would default to the good of the many over the needs of the one is just not in his nature. ... Mr. Olbermann is a ferocious fan of team sports, but that’s not how he plays the game.
“He is the equivalent of a supremely talented left-handed pitcher with a strong arm — and some obvious control issues — that can give whatever team hires him a lot of quality innings. On the bench and off the field? He will complain about his coach, his teammates, the quality of the field and the stadium lights.”