Monday, June 27, 2011

The ‘Countdown’ clock resets

“As I was saying,” said Keith Olbermann, host of the Current TV-resurrected “Countdown” program on Monday, June 20, 2011, resuming his role in the national conversation 151 days after “Countdown” signed off on Another Network, 508 days before the next presidential election on which his commentary will presumably have an impact.

“Countdown” blasted back into the American living room that night and the following four, placing Current TV firmly in the vanguard of the prime-time political left alongside MSNBC, Olbermann’s former employer. The new format of “Countdown” is much like its predecessor, a fact that works for Olbermann and against him.

“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.”

Olbermann thus staked out old and familiar territory, as snarky, acerbic champion of liberal values … and as reflexive demonizer of MSNBC. How much the one is celebrated and the other is tolerated may have a lot to do with how well the new “Countdown” counts up the viewers.

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Olbermann is back to blanketing prime-time and beyond: his broadcast goes on at Current TV at 8 p.m. and 11 p.m. eastern time, and again at 2 a.m. eastern time. (It was seen last week at 4 a.m. Pacific time.) “Countdown” will be followed weeknights by Current Events, the channel’s rotating series of documentaries, news reports and commentaries.

You have to give KO credit for consistency. Olbermann, always a savvy packager of the day’s events, knew enough not to tamper with a good thing. The Current edition of “Countdown” apes the old, right down to the sonically stylized opening notes of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony in D Minor that have identified the show’s opening since its time on MSNBC.

He’s still throwing papers around at the end of the “Worst Persons” segment; he still reads James Thurber fables on Friday; and his robustly progressive roster of guests — filmmaker/cultural flamethrower Michael Moore; Markos Moulitsas, founder of The Daily Kos; former Powell Chief of Staff Lawrence Wilkerson; author, legal scholar and former Nixon counsel John Dean — has transferred intact to the new network, most with the added (presumably financial) advantage of being official “Countdown Contributors.”

And Olbermann’s targets of opportunity are as wide-ranging as ever. The first week he took aim at (among other topics) Fox News’ selective editing of an interview with Jon Stewart; Arizona Sen. John McCain’s blaming the wildfires in his state on undocumented immigrants from Mexico; and the slow-motion train wreck of Newt Gingrich’s presidential campaign.

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In these ways the new “Countdown” is about what we’d expected. It was almost unnecessary for Olbermann to introduce his Premiere Week by telling us what we already knew: “This is to be a newscast of contextualization, and it is to be presented with a viewpoint ...”

Duh, sir. That’s why we’re watching now. That’s why we’ve been watching for years. Olbermann’s statement is a nod to his formalist, archival bent, his sense of history and of mission, and that’s fair. We’ve watched him for that, too.

What’s still to be seen is how many are watching now, how many of his legacy viewers have made and will make the migration from MSNBC to a channel with a fraction of a fraction of as many viewers — one of the sharper distinctions between Old “Countdown” and New. In February, 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 almost five years; this despite being available in up to 60 million homes.

The New “Countdown” has promise. The Associated Press, extracting from figures from the Nielsen Co. reported that on June 20, the new program pulled in 179,000 viewers between 25 and 54, for advertisers the demographic holy of holies. It’s a tenfold increase over Current’s fourth-quarter average last year. If it holds up.

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Another distinction: an admittedly minor matter of look & feel. The new “Countdown” set is sleeker, chromatically cooler than the MSNBC layout; and mercifully, the font used in the program’s intertitles is now something you can actually read.

But the new set notwithstanding, something in the technical aspect of the broadcast isn’t working. Whether it’s the in-studio cameras or the strength of the satellite signal, gremlins are conspiring to make New “Countdown” look flatter, less digitally crisp — less live — than Old “Countdown.” Tommy Christopher noted, in a piece in Mediaite, that “the show continues to have problems with its audio mix, a distracting weakness that lends the otherwise slick show the aura of a made-for-SyFy plague thriller.”

Olbermann’s been doing his best to prime the pump. What was, back in January, a classy and principled exit has descended somewhat, into a series of interviews and guest appearances — in Rolling Stone, in The Hollywood Reporter, on Letterman — with Olbermann sniping at MSNBC for his quickly executed departure from that network on Jan. 21, at almost the moment that Comcast became majority owners of NBC Universal, the parent of the parent of MSNBC.

Since then, there’s been bad blood — bad blood light, actually — between Olbermann and Rachel Maddow, host of her own MSNBC show and once Olbermann’s protégé and on-air political twin.

Christopher in Mediaite offers back story:
Rather than positioning himself as an alternative to Fox News, or neutral CNN, Olbermann set himself up as the “us” in an “us vs. them” battle with the only other prime time liberal cable news bloc, MSNBC.

Despite relatively strong ratings for his debut show, Countdown didn’t make a dent in MSNBC’s ratings, and his decision to overlap with Rachel Maddow’s show caused a swift backlash from fans who didn’t feel like choosing.

Olbermann cast his decision as a desire not to hurt Maddow’s ratings, the equivalent of a mosquito generously offering not to exsanguinate a crocodile. The truth is, by targeting his old friend’s show, he was making himself look like a jerk, and costing Maddow very little. That same dynamic likely applies to viewers of other liberal MSNBC shows, as well. Even those who might like Countdown better are bound to wonder why Olbermann can’t let his show stand on the merits, rather than trash the efforts of others on the same “team.” No one likes to see Mom and Dad fight.
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The new “Countdown” modifies the signoff of the old one— “Thank you for helping us preserve freedom of news,” Olbermann says in an apparently permanent dig at his former employer. Then, continuing his longtime crib from Murrow, “Good night, and good luck.”

His return to form is comforting somehow, as comforting as anything is in the blue-glow world of 24/7 TV.

But Olbermann’s long harbored a willingness to gamble, to push back against the comforts of the institution, even if the institution is just the old way of doing things.

His seemingly counter-intuitive leap to Current is a validation of the documentary as foundational to reporting of 21st-century news. As Current’s chief news officer, Olbermann is attempting to graft long-form video journalism to the everyday-cable news model. It’s a daring move and, given the interconnectedness of the modern world, a necessary one.

Would that the people who matter, the viewers, cast a deciding vote. With their remotes.
Image credits: All images via Current TV.

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