Saturday, March 31, 2012

Good night, good luck and good grief:
Olbermann and Current TV


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.

But it was ominous, if not exactly telling: That first big glitch, and others before and since, signaled deep technical difficulties at Current TV. On Thursday, and well into the Friday news cycle, we discovered that, from the perspective of Current management, the biggest technical difficulty facing the not-yet-seven-year-old network was Keith Olbermann himself. It was a problem remedied in a letter on the Current Web site, written by Current founders Al Gore and Joel Hyatt:

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.

In a transitional sleight of hand that was masterful, Current scheduled Eliot Spitzer to pinch-hit for Olbermann on Thursday night at 8 o’clock. Nothing seemed to be publicly amiss. “I’m Eliot Spitzer sitting in for Keith Olbermann,” Spitzer said.

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:

“I'd like to apologize to my viewers and my staff for the failure of Current TV. Editorially, Countdown had never been better. But for more than a year I have been imploring Al Gore and Joel Hyatt to resolve our issues internally, while I've been not publicizing my complaints, and keeping the show alive for the sake of its loyal viewers and even more loyal staff. …

“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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For Olbermann’s legacy viewers, there was a lot to feel comfortable with. With only a few cosmetic tweaks, the new edition replicated the old one, right down to the Beethoven opening and the Friday salons with the work of James Thurber. Everything was close to the same. Everything but the audience.

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.”


He may have been willing to complain about more than that. Mediaite reported Saturday that Olbermann “went through 8 different car services (he doesn’t drive), and complained to the network that some of the drivers ‘smelled,’ and ‘talked to him.’”

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The “stadium lights” mention is of course entirely apropos. “Countdown’s” broadcast had been hampered by periodic … anomalies early on, technical goofs that look even more glaring because of Current’s low-res, non-HDTV visual signature.

It all came to a head when the lights went severely down on Dec. 5, thanks to a blown fuse in the New York studio, while Olbermann was on the air.

The following night, with the glitch still unglitched, Olbermann went on the air, this time with a candle and spot lighting, and began to cement the idea — news in a setting for a séance — as a permanent thing. Which, it turned, it was. Right up to Wednesday night.

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ONE OF the more obvious disappointments in all this is what this means to Current’s plans to figure in the political debate. Olbermann’s absence from Current TV — as the primary season mercifully winds down and the distinctions sharpen en route to the general election — hurts Current’s bid for a wider presence in the electronic commentariat, and does so at exactly the wrong time.

Olbermann was brought aboard as the linchpin for the campaign coverage both he and the network anticipated for 2012. But for various reasons we’ll hear about in the upcoming legal battle to come, Olbermann was curiously absent from covering some of the early primaries. Apparently because of the technical problems, Olbermann bowed out of taking charge of the kind of special election coverage that could have enhanced Current’s stature, if not its ratings, as a serious journalistic player in the campaign.

He missed the Iowa caucuses. Why? “"I was not given a legitimate opportunity to host under acceptable conditions," he told The Hollywood Reporter. He even took the day off on the day before Super Tuesday.

Beginning in January and continuing into March, you were just as likely to find Olbermann gone as you were to see him there, as the host of the program he created, at the network for which he was Chief News Officer.

It’s bad enough that such a pouting occasionality of Olbermann’s work ethic could be interpreted as breach of contract (something that Current’s executives have already alleged, and a line of attack Current’s lawyers can be expected to pursue).

What’s worse, from the standpoint of his viewers, is Olbermann’s apparent willingness to absent himself from the national political dialogue for comparatively petty reasons. Olbermann’s inconsistent attendance meant that he’d taken his brand for granted. Worse still, it meant that, to some degree, he’d taken his audience for granted. It was that, or he just didn’t care.

For Olbermann, as pointed, insightful and passionate a political commentator as they come, it’s a serious self-inflicted wound. You can’t be part of the conversation if you don’t show up.

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The depth of Current’s frustration with Olbermann was no overnight thing. With the addition of “The Young Turks” with Cenk Uygur (in December) and “The War Room With Jennifer Granholm” (in January), Current management was both prudently deepening its bench of prime-time programming and taking out some insurance against the risk of a terminal Olbermann blowup. The overnight launch of Spitzer’s “Viewpoint” — with no buzz, no buildup, no month of teaser ads beforehand — makes that even more obvious.

The lineup card is changing again. “As we move toward this summer's political conventions and the general election in the fall, Current is making significant new additions to our broadcasts,” the network said this week in a statement. “We have just debuted six hours of new programming each weekday with Bill Press ("Full Court Press" at 6 am ET/3 am PT) and Stephanie Miller ("Talking Liberally" at 9 am ET/6 pm PT).”

But in the short term, it’s hard to see the upside for Current – at least to go by some reactions in the blogosphere:

Mike Dog, commenting on the Current TV Web site: “Sorry Current. I came to watch Current strictly due to being a fan of Keith Olbermann and the Countdown staff. Without Keith I no longer wish to watch your network. Good luck in the future, and please delete my account with currenttv.com & remove me from your mailing lists. I love Bill Press & Stephanie Miller, but my loyalties are to Keith.”

WJC, on the Current site: “I never heard of Current TV prior to Keith being on and now that he is gone, you are dead to me.”

Richbruin, at The Huffington Post: “Seriously, it looked like the show was done on a public access set....I love Keith but why am I not surprised it didn't work out?......”

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PAST WILL be prologue, again. Thanks to the ruthless drive for ratings, Olbermann’s past off-camera antics and conflicts with the authority figures who run the companies he’s worked for won’t stop him from hooking up with another network, sooner or later. In the brief window between his exit from MSNBC and signing on at Current, there was speculation (some of it mine) that Olbermann could have been the centerpiece of a reimagined prime-time at CNN.

Wherever he lands, though, it’d make sense that Olbermann gives this next move a longer think time. There’s only just so many players in the media game able to afford Olbermann, and fewer still, probably, willing to turn themselves and their news operations inside out to accommodate a proven shit disturber. Even one with great ratings.

In a conference call last June, Olbermann spoke to reporters about his reasons for making the move to Current, and its benefits. "There is nothing on my shoulder other than getting the best news, information and commentary show on the air every day," Olbermann said. Later in the call, he said that in the process of writing practice shows, "I’ve stopped myself from stopping myself."

Like the crowd watching the daredevil motorcyclist at the county fair, or the supremely talented leftie with control issues, we’ll watch— when we know where to watch — to see if Keith Olbermann can stop himself from stopping himself again.

Image credits: Olbermann, Countdown logo, Viewpoint logo: © 2011, 2012 Current TV. Olbermann tweet: @mileskahn. Olbermann laughs: MSNBC.

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