Monday, January 24, 2011

Media player: Comcast, ‘Countdown’
and the education of a giant

Over the weekend, The Associated Press reported that NBC prime-time entertainment president Angela Bromstad advised her staff of her plans to leave NBC Universal, within days to be the property of the cable conglomerate Comcast. Other NBCU suits on their way out include NBC Universal chief Jeff Zucker and NBC Universal TV entertainment chairman Jeff Gaspin.

These departures, of course, are part of the big changes already underway at NBC and its cable news partner, MSNBC. The biggest high-profile departure happened on Friday, when Keith Olbermann jumped/was pushed from his role as the host of “Countdown With Keith Olbermann.”

The blowback that’s building against Comcast among media critics, academics and the viewing public for Olbermann’s absence from MSNBC’s top-rated show suggests that while Comcast has an obvious eye for a sound media investment, the cable giant has something to learn about the public and its emotional investment in the TV programs it’s embraced.

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In 2010, "Countdown" averaged 268,000 viewers in the 25-to-54-year-old demographic, TheWrap reported citing Nielsen, putting the program in 13th place in average total viewers and 11th place among viewers 25 to 54. editor Alex Weprin, speaking to TheWrap, spelled out what MSNBC could lose with Olbermann’s departure. “Since leaning leftward in primetime, MSNBC's ratings have been up, leading to higher ad revenue and higher subscription fees,” Weprin said. “Comcast is a business, after all, so even if some of their executives may not like the politics of the hosts, there is no denying the business potential.”

But there’s more than one way to quantify an asset. At least two Web sites have circulated petitions calling for viewers to boycott MSNBC for Olbermann’s exit.

A petition at planetpov reads in part: “Keith Olbermann is not a generic cog that can be simply replaced with another ‘liberal.’ He is an individual that has earned the loyalty of millions and he is not replaceable, a concept that seems to escape those like you with corporate mindsets. That loyalty is not transferable. As you know by now, after the firestorm across the Progressive Netroots, this is not something that can be slipped past people on a Friday News Dump or allowed to be forgotten.”

Much the same passion’s evident at Petition Online: “Keith Olbermann has been the face of MSNBC for 8 years and helped put the channel on the political and national map. Whatever problems MSNBC's hierarchy had with Mr. Olbermann, does not justify ending a program loved and watched by millions of Americans as MSNBC's most-watched primetime program.”

The metric of viewer loyalty is something that MSNBC or Comcast, or both, may have miscalculated.

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Alterego55, commenting at HuffPost, offered one of the clearest, most pragmatic theories about who was behind what happened on Friday and why:

“It is impossible [to] claim truthfully this had nothing to do with Comcast buying NBC. In any deal of this size, individual assets are quantified as to their value and summed up to provide a composite valuation of the company (i.e the price Comcast is willing to pay for NBC). Not only was Olbermann's contract examined, but his likelihood to stay or leave would be considered as part of the overall valuation.

“If Comcast thought Olbermann was an asset, there is no way in the world MSNBC would have canned him. And, Comcast might have even offered him a retention bonus above and beyond his contract.

“If Comcast thought Olbermann was a liability, they would have pressured MSNBC to terminate his contract, which would have been done by buying out his contract to the end of its term. Why? Because they didn't want the risk of a lawsuit cluttering up the acquisition.

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Alterego55 may be on to something. On Friday, Bill Carter of The New York Times reported that, well before the Comcast-NBCU transaction was finalized, Comcast brass had worries that the company might be seen as possibly interfering in MSNBC operations for political reasons.

“One executive, who asked not to be identified because Comcast had instructed employees not to speak about the situation, said the company dreaded the prospect of being blamed if Mr. Olbermann were to quit soon after the takeover,” Carter reported.

We won’t hear about the particulars of what happened from the horse’s mouth for a while. Carter reported that “Friday’s separation agreement between MSNBC and Mr. Olbermann includes restrictions on when he can next lead a television show and when he can give interviews about the decision to end his association with the news channel.

“The executives involved in the discussions confirmed that the deal carries limitations for Mr. Olbermann in terms of when he can next work on television, though he will be able to take a job in radio or on any forum on the Internet.”

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It’s anyone’s guess as to what Olbermann’s next move will be. Entertainment Weekly reported that Aaron Sorkin, whose “The Social Network” is an odds-on favorite for Oscar consideration (nominations are Tuesday), “has long had a pilot script in the works about a cable news show, and Olbermann could be tapped to contribute rants, says a source familiar with the project.”

Justine, commenting at the EW Web site, opined: “He should join Obama’s campaign as a Democratic strategist. He’d be very good.”

Whatever his next move is, his now-former network has its own internal retooling ahead. Baltimore Sun television critic David Zurawik suggests that some stalwarts in the NBC News family believe things in the nearly eight-year Olbermann era had gone too far.

“They felt the brand was really diminished,” Zurawik told TheWrap’s Dylan Stableford. “And NBC News is absolutely right to say, ‘This does not belong on our airwaves, we're going to dial it back.’ And that's what's happening here. You watch how fast Maddow and all of the rest of them dial it back in a week.”

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But there’s the rub. Zurawik’s scenario raises the obvious question: Dial it back to what? Olbermann posted sizeable ratings numbers for a reason. His program’s freewheeling, no-holds-barred, utterly unique approach to reporting and commenting on the news of the day obviously stuck a nerve with the public — particularly the public in the 25-to-54 demographic advertisers would kill for.

Will advertisers be as enthusiastic about placing their products in a slot with just someone reading straight news from a TelePrompTer? For that matter, how enthusiastic would Rachel Maddow or Lawrence O’Donnell (hosts of their own progressive-leaning programs) be about being those newsreaders? And how much traction would a wholesale departure from MSNBC’s recent on-air style have with the viewers they covet?

Viewer defections are already in the works.

Demomntgirl, commenting in The Huffington Post: “Let the corporate propaganda machine roll! We will not be watching ANY NBC owned channels! We might drop COMCAST and switch to a dish. Freedom of the press ... is dead.”

MFMG in HuffPost: “The best is now gone ... Maddow is as smart but boring, Ed [Schultz of “The Ed Show”] is too barky, and O'Donnell does not have the spark that Keith has. Olbermann was too much for the new owners to control. Thanks Keith for all that you have done. I'm not planning on watching MSNBC any more.”

“They've got to figure out a new framework,” Newsday’s Verne Gay told TheWrap. “Suddenly, Keith, the guy that was really responsible for making it lean forward — I mean, leaning really far forward — is gone. So I don't really know how they can maintain the momentum. They've got to figure out a new personality.”

We may learn more on Tuesday — the date of President Obama’s State of the Union address. Who’ll anchor the SOTU coverage that night? A fair guess is that MSNBC’s coverage will be handled by the troika of Maddow, O’Donnell and "Hardball" host Chris Matthews — a combination that makes sense given their past experience in covering Big Events (all three were part of MSNBC’s 2008 election-night coverage). That may be a clear short-term picture of the state of a cable network as it retools in the wake of a blindsiding event.

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Longer term? It’s harder to say. A source close to MSNBC management told The Huffington Post that network brass “have grown increasingly impressed by O'Donnell and feel he has ‘grown into the job nicely.’”

"The debut of the new lineup will be the State of the Union, with Lawrence now the central player," the source said.

Another source close to MSNBC management told HuffPost that O'Donnell's experience in politics (a former top aide to Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan) and entertainment (producer, story editor and writer for NBC’s “The West Wing”) would give him a leg up in the new order.

Matthews’ on-air references to Philadelphia, something he’s done for months at least, may have been strategic and more than just idle jabbering about his birthplace and the home of his beloved Phillies major-league baseball team. "One of the other winners in this is Chris Matthews," a source close to MSNBC management told The Huffington Post. "He's been steady and uncomplaining. His numbers are better and he has a natural Philly connection to Comcast."

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On Friday, The Los Angeles Times’ Joe Flint briefly characterized Comcast’s corporate style, saying “likes to fly under the radar as much as possible.” That may or may not be true; last year’s splashy rollout of ads for the Xfinity package of cable, broadband Internet and digital voice services (featuring Zachary Levi of NBC’s “Chuck”) suggests the company wouldn’t mind a little higher profile.

But Comcast is about to be that rara avis in media: A company that controls both the pipes and the content flowing through those pipes. It’s already the largest cable company and the largest residential Internet service provider in the country. As of this Friday, when it begins operational control of NBC Universal, Comcast also becomes a major provider of television programming and motion pictures. For a nation of people who care deeply about the integrity of the news and analysis they get, their breadth and diversity, and the potentially corrupting influence of the corporations that produce and disseminate that news, that’s a Very B.F. Deal.

Marvin Ammori, a law professor at the University of Nebraska, and a former adviser to a nonprofit opposing the Comcast-NBCU deal, told The Times’ Carter in an e-mail Friday that “Keith Olbermann’s announcement tonight, the very same week that the government blessed the Comcast-NBC merger, raises serious concern for anyone who cares about free speech. Comcast proved expert in shaking down the government to approve its merger. Comcast’s shakedown of NBC has just begun.”

A caution to the new entertainment, news and cable conglomerate on the block: You can’t hope to fly under the radar when you preside over an earthquake.

Image credits: Comcast logo, Comcast-NBC Universal ad: © 2011 Comcast. Countdown title card, Olbermann, Rachel Maddow, msnbc logo: msnbc. Sorkin: © 2010 Platon. O'Donnell: © 2009 David Shankbone, republished under Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license. Fair disclosure: I worked at for six years.

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