Thursday, May 19, 2011

The countdown to ‘Countdown’


Once and future TV news warrior Keith Olbermann returned as a guest last night on CBS’s “The Late Show With David Letterman.” When he walked out on the stage of the Ed Sullivan Theater using a collapsible cane, all six-foot-four 3.5 inches of him, it was clear he was walking wounded. Literally. He wore a black foam cast on his left foot, a rig that made his already outsize features that much more so.

It might have been a physical metaphor for his past warfare with MSNBC, his former employer, but the real reason was more benign: “Stress fracture, running,” he said. Apparently, not only should men of his size not undulate, they shouldn’t run either (especially, by his own admission, in shoes intended for walking and nothing but).

But besides a snapshot assessment of the 2012 Republican field and discussing his own immediate future — he goes back on the air with his program, “Countdown” on the Current TV cable channel on June 20 — Olbermann last night offered his clearest rationale for making the jump from a major cable property to one with a dramatically smaller universe of loyal viewers. In the process, he  called the question of the value and importance of the news business to the multimegaconglomerates who keep television networks in their portfolios, along with everything else.

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There'd been a worsening stress fracture in Olbermann’s relationship with MSNBC for many months. It all came to a head with his sudden and (externally) surprising departure from the network in January, after eight years of service and months of friction stemming from his suspension without pay from the network in November for making three $2,400 donations to the campaigns of three congressional candidates during the 2008 election cycle.

Last night on Letterman, Olbermann explained the reasoning behind his choice to jump to Current, which despite being available in somewhere between 30 million and 60 million homes, is actively watched during prime-time by about 23,000 households:

“At some point in the years of doing the news in the way that I do it, it’s occurred to me that the best place to start doing the news, and hopefully to continue it that way, would be at a place that’s just in the news business and nothing else. It doesn’t also own an amusement park in Orlando or doesn’t have outdoor advertising or, you know, beet plantations in the Azores, but just did news ...”

It was a telling shot at Comcast (television/Internet/sports franchises/advertising), the new corporate overlords of NBC Universal, the continuing corporate overlords of MSNBC (the stake of General Electric’s corporate overlordiness in the channel was diminished when Comcast took over). And by extension, Olbermann seemed to be firing another shot at corporate entities like Disney (theme parks/television/movies/Internet/publishing/hotels/toys) and Viacom (television/cable/Internet/outdoor advertising/32 Bubba Gump Shrimp Company seafood restaurants) … and General Electric (jet engines/medical diagnostics/energy services/home appliances/television/real estate/cigars/beach balls/guitar strings/bottled water).

How important can the news possibly be, Olbermann seemed to ask the multimegaconglomerates without asking, when the news is so little of what you do — and what you are?

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It’s a safe bet that Olbermann won’t have the short newsgathering leash he had at MSNBC while he’s at Current: Olbermann assumes the title of Current Chief News Officer — he’s management! “The lunatics have taken over the asylum,” he said last night. What’s still to be seen is whether the loyal following that made 8 p.m. a destination time when he was at MSNBC will follow him to a smaller, less recognized network still very much in the process of defining itself for the public in a ravenously competitive television landscape.

Olbermann means to try, first by making it easy for people to find his program, the name of which remains the same. Letterman asked the inevitable question: How’d he manage to take control of the ‘Countdown’ brand from MSNBC?

“We just sorta did it,” he said. “We’ll hear from them if they’re not happy about it.”

Keith Olbermann’s getting ready to retake the big chair. He’ll be hearing from everyone — and we’ll be hearing from him, again — about a month from now.

Image credits: Olbermann and Letterman: The Late Show With David Letterman (© 2011 CBS/Worldwide Pants). Logos are properties of their respective corporate parents.

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