Friday, January 21, 2011

Zero hour: ‘Countdown’ and why it matters

Keith Olbermann, author, essayist, passionate sports fan and the host of MSNBC’s “Countdown,” hinted early in tonight’s program at what was to come just before he cut to a commercial break. It was something about the end of “Countdown” or something or other; we half-digested it, thought it might be another KO head fake, a sly way of introducing another change in one of cable’s most successful and original franchises.

Sadly, no.

Olbermann returned and in short order announced that, effective with the end of that very program, “Countdown” would be no more. Gone. Over.

“There were many occasions, particularly in the last two and a half years, where all that surrounded the show — but never the show itself — was just too much for me,” he said tonight. “But your support and loyalty and, if I may use the word, insistence, ultimately required me to keep going. My gratitude to you is boundless and if you think I've done any good here, imagine how it looked from this end ... this may be the only television program wherein the host was much more in awe of the audience than vice versa.”

And minutes later, after Olbermann concluded a Friday ritual of reading from the work of James Thurber — this time “The Scotty Who Knew Too Much” — it was done. Swiftly, savagely, suddenly, one of the true destination programs on cable was history at the network, soon to be the property of Comcast, the Philadelphia-based cable giant whose acquisition of MSNBC was cleared days ago by the Federal Communications Commission and the Justice Department.

The network had already composed the obligatory statement, attributed to MSNBC president Phil Griffin and released as Olbermann was wrapping things up:

"Msnbc and Keith Olbermann have ended our contract. Msnbc thanks Keith for his integral role in msnbc's success and we wish him well in his future endeavors," Griffin said.

The Huffington Post reported that NBC spokesman Jeremy Gaines said the Comcast-NBC Universal merger had nothing to do with the decision.

For its part, Comcast told the Los Angeles Times’ Joe Flint that the company "has not closed the transaction for NBC Universal and has no operational control at any of its properties including MSNBC.”

◊ ◊ ◊

But we knew what happened. We knew it when Olbermann told us what he’d “been told” about the future of the program on MSNBC. Those higher in the network food chain had made the decision. Whether he “jumped” or was “pushed” amounts to semantics and press-release spin.

The short-term future of network prime-time programming is set : “The Last Word With Lawrence O’Donnell” moves to the 8 o’clock slot vacated by KO’s departure, followed by “The Rachel Maddow Show,” followed by “The Ed Show” with Ed Schultz, whose vocal progressive leanings have been almost as forthright as Olbermann’s over the past year.

Professional media watchers are weighing in. Jeff Bercovici at Forbes pretty much voiced the obvious standing suspicion:

“Correlation isn’t causation, as they say in the sciences,” Bercovici writes. “But it’s hard to ignore the near simultaneity of Keith Olbermann’s departure from MSNBC, announced on the air tonight, and the approval of NBC Universal’s merger with Comcast by federal regulators, which happened earlier this week.”

“An intrinsically conservative corporation, it’s not overly friendly to congenital boat-rockers like Olbermann,” Bercovici said of Comcast.

◊ ◊ ◊

The other big question is, must be: What happens to Olbermann now?

Back in November, after Olbermann was furloughed for a weekend for making undisclosed donations to three congressional candidates (one of them Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, wounded in the Tucson shootings on Jan. 8), the Shock ventured a possible scenario if KO were to exit:

“Envision this theoretical prime-time lineup: David Shuster (formerly with MSNBC, dismissed early this year in another policy-breach flap) followed by Olbermann (probably with the “Countdown” staff and concept in tow) followed by CNN fixture Anderson Cooper’s “360º” program, followed by Piers Morgan (soon to be the host of a talk show in Larry King’s current slot). A lineup like that could be, from MSNBC’s point of view, a very heavy challenge to overcome.”

Obama2008, commenting tonight at The Huffington Post, thinks much the same thing: “Here's CNN's solution to the Parker/Spitzer problem.”

HuffPost on Friday night was as reliable a sounding board of reaction as you could ask for. Some readers/viewers weren’t hopeful of MSNBC’s riding this out.

Naninwstock: “How horribly disappointing. Keith will be badly missed in my home. Although O'Donnell has a strong liberal view, watching him is equal to watching paint dry. I will though tune in to watch Rachel. She is the only saving grace left for msnbc. It's a sad day.”

HuffPost Super User Jaxy: “I look forward to Keith's next project, whatever it is. It's rare to find such lancing wit, heartfelt compassion­, and a dogged commitment to exposing the truth all in one person.”

MissKaren, another Super User: “I am stunned. Angry, too, but mostly stunned. I also don't for a minute believe that Comcast had nothing to do with it.”

Ljmck: “Geez, I'm going to have to go back on anti-depressants. This is terrible news.”

Darcy64: “Comcast is unbelievably foolish to let the host of MSNBC's highest rated show go but I just read that they gave a lot of money to Republican candidates so I guess I should not be surprised. Disgusted but not surprised.”

◊ ◊ ◊

Darcy64 may have a point, or not. Flint at The Times observed: “Olbermann is a lefty and it is no secret that Comcast CEO Brian Roberts and his No. 2 Steve Burke (who will run NBC Universal) have donated to Republicans on occasion.

“However, David Cohen, a top Comcast executive and the man who guided the deal with NBC Universal through the Federal Communications Commission and the Justice Department, held a huge fundraiser for President Obama in 2008. Comcast's Roberts has also often donated to Democrats.”

“Olbermann draws a lot of heat and Comcast likes to fly under the radar as much as possible,” Flint writes. But if that assessment is correct, Comcast’s acquisition may have been a slight miscalculation. If you really want to “fly under the radar,” the last thing you do is spend a year acquiring the most visible media company in the country. This is just as likely to be Comcast’s bid for a wider public recognition as the new entertainment superconglomerate (witness the company's high-profile rollout of its Xfinity services).

◊ ◊ ◊

The Scotty Who Knew Too Much” is a fable by James Thurber, an author Olbermann has long admired, and whose work has been for months a Friday “Countdown” signoff fixture, a refreshingly throwback, hearth-and-slippers gesture fundamentally at odds with the visual culture of cable TV (hell, when was the last time you saw anyone else reading a book on television news?).

The fable deserves to be read on its own merits; we won’t even attempt a distillation of Thurber here. But in Olbermann’s reading of Thurber’s moral, you could glimpse that he was sending a signal about his own circumstances.

"Moral: It is better to ask some of the questions than to know all the answers."

Keith Olbermann did that, and he’ll do it again, mostly because, like any journalist, he knows perfectly well that no one has all the answers. He’s been our canary in the coal mine of American life and politics and 21st century corporate culture.

He could be high-handed, impolitic and a tad imperious; he cribbed at least some of his central mannerisms from Edward R. Murrow, as anyone who’s seen the kinescopes of Murrow already knows.

But that’s just the camera. Olbermann has that deepest necessary of all journalists. More than having command of the foundational matters of fact and statistics, more than being hysterically obedient to the reflex of “balance,” Olbermann has conscience. He hasn’t just asked questions of lawmakers and newsmakers; that’s the easy part. In the most uncertain time in our history, he’s asked the pertinent questions of his viewers: “Do you care?” “Does it matter?” “Is this the democracy you want?”

It’s necessary to ask that question if you want an answer. He asked and Americans answered him when unemployed people needed health care; we contributed $2 million to the National Association of Free Clinics to get thousands of people treated by doctors. We answered him when families in Arizona in desperate need of transplants had knowledge of their cases amplified nationally; Olbermann took their cases public and did what he could to literally embarrass the state of Arizona into saving the lives of some of its citizens. He asked those questions again and we donated more than $150,000 to the National Transplant Assistance Fund over the holidays.

Olbermann provoked us to care for each other as fellow Americans. As human beings. At the end of the day, there may be nothing more important a journalist, or a citizen, can do.

◊ ◊ ◊

A frequent leitmotif for Olbermann, especially toward the end, was the movie “Network,” and its messianic, madly prescient central character, Howard Beale. KO’s been compared to Beale more than once. But the Beale persona is too big to contain in any one person; Olbermann has his share of that persona, but it’s also divided among Leno and Letterman, Kimmel and Conan; Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, Bill Maher and Jimmy Fallon; Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity; Bill O’Reilly and Glenn Beck.

As the screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky no doubt intended, Howard Beale was probably never meant to be seen as a single individual, but more of a distillation of a change in news and journalism. The plurality of voices and perspectives Chayefsky hinted at in “Network” has been in real life a dangerously robust, even combustible, but ultimately enlightening exchange.

We’re poorer now, that plurality of voices that makes our democracy what it is is weaker now that KO’s out of that mix.

◊ ◊ ◊

Which is bound to be a very temporary thing. Count on this. In the ruthless free-fire zone of television, in the evolving competition for eyeballs, there’s nothing like proven success to keep you in play. You watch. He’ll surface again, trading slings and arrows for the pitchforks and torches we were getting used to.

For now, though, it’s a wound, one that’ll never be less than a bruise. His absence may be like that Thurber fable, or something out of “Cool Hand Luke” ... or maybe even earlier, a 1940’s prison movie where the hero (or antihero), the guy who said everything just right, laughed with his head back, spoke truth to power about the prison conditions and fought the good fight with conviction. And against his own conviction. Somehow, over time, the other prisoners knew or sensed what was about to happen. The order had been given; the warden and the chaplain had come calling.

In the evening they walked him, head held high, from his cell and through a door, and ushered him into another, better place. And every light in the big house went dark when the deal went down.

Image credits: Olbermann, Countdown title card: MSNBC. Logos of companies are properties of their respective parents. HuffPost front page: © 2011 The Huffington Post. Still from "Network": © 1976 MGM. Fair disclosure: I worked at for six years.

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