Keith Olbermann Marches On

Cropped headshot of Keith Olbermann

Keith Olbermann (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Keith Olbermann, the wildly talented television anchor returned to ESPN2 Monday night with a new program simply called Olbermann. This was a strange homecoming for Olbermann whose roots with ESPN go back to the early 90s. Olbermann’s partnership with Dan Patrick is widely considered the gold standard of one of ESPN’s crown jewels SportsCenter. Olbermann literally uttered the first words ever heard on ESPN2 20 years ago: “Welcome to the end of our careers!” Olbermann left the network in late 90s. It was the first of his many acrimonious departures from TV networks.

In the years since, Olbermann called ESPN hell, a place that gave him “dry heaves” and would “make [him] ashamed, make [him] depressed, make [him] cry.” He was banned from ESPN’s Bristol campus. His only affiliation with ESPN was during a short stint on Patrick’s radio show prior to Patrick’s departure from ESPN.

The last decade of Olbermann’s career consisted of his role as part liberal advocacy journalist/part Peter Finch in Network on his MSNBC/CurrentTV show, Countdown with Keith Olbermann. Countdown is clearly the inspiration for this new program. Olbermann brought his signatures segments, Oddball now Time Marches On and The Worst Person in the World now The Worst Person in the Sports World. Add a cup of nostalgia (a segment called This Day in Keith History which celebrates funny moments from Olbermann’s past with the World Wide Leader in sports) and a few topical live interviews per night and you have Olbermann. Olbermann’s cocktail of velocity, high production values, satire, and lengthy brainy essays separated him in the world of cable news, providing the template for MSNBC to lean forward. In the world of ESPN, the Olbermann feels both unique and oddly out-of-place.

As always, Olbermann shines in his interviews. As with Countdown, he’s subverts the cable news/sports trope: the predetermined sparring match. In most of cable news an anchor sets the table with their point of view and brings on someone to shout with or the anchor takes no stance and brings on two people with competing points of view and plays referee as they shout at each other.  Instead Olbermann embraces the slant instead of engaging in a false debate. Olbermann takes a stand than uses his guest to reinforce his stance and furthers the conversation on the topic. These tactics are refreshing to see on what Olbermann’s first guest called the Skip Bayless network. Bayless’ show ESPN First Take’s motto is Embrace Debate. On First Take Bayless and fellow debater Stephen A. Smith embrace that false debate for two hours straight followed by a repeat. Other ESPN commentators like Pardon the Interruption’s Mike Wilbon, Tony Kornheiser, Bomani Jones, and the screeching heads on ESPN’s Around the Horn make their living doing just that with varying degrees of entertainment value.

What ails the infant incarnation of Olbermann failed to apply to its storytelling is one crucial element: context. On Monday night’s episode, Olbermann’s attempted to attack the sports world with the voracity that he attacked politics and the news of the day felt ill-conceived. Olbermann’s Bush era Special Comment sized attack on Manish Mehta’s contradictory reporting on the New York Jets’ QB situation. His special comments tackled issues of massive importance like gun control in the wake of the Gabby Giffords shooting, or the War in Iraq. Here was Olbermann placing the same scrutiny on who will be the New York Jets starting QB.

Olbermann will hopefully scale back this level of aggression on topics that aren’t earth shattering. This overdramatic approach is one-way Olbermann fits with the modern ESPN a network whose identity is tied with its sheer volume of coverage of a topic. Whether this will remain his approach is questionable. No show structure is built in any singular episode or week of shows. Live daily shows evolve through trial and error. Olbermann will be no different.

The greater question about Keith Olbermann’s return to ESPN is whether is a harbinger of things to come. Many have speculated that ESPN’s recent high-profile moves may be an attempt get “smarter.” ESPN President John Skipper denies this assertion but one thing is clear the network is on the offensive. The birth of competitors like NBC Sports Network and Fox Sports 1 and the success of Bill Simmons’ ESPN owned Grantland have shifted the landscape of ESPN. Despite the network’s beliefs detailed in James Andrew Miller’s seminal ESPN book Those Guys Have All The Fun, ESPN is clearly no longer a singular entity. No network is an island; Olbermann is a sign of this. ESPN is methodically diversifying its portfolio if not pivoting the axis of ESPN’s content. This isn’t the first time ESPN has diversified its content. The network has experimented talk shows, game shows, and an ill-fated original series. These developments did not hold. ESPN retreated back to its mean, an unending wave of analysis and analysis of analysis with islands of sports in between. Only time will tell where this wave crashes.

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Being a Cable News Channel Means Never Saying You’re Sorry

MSNBC’s non mea culpa mea culpa that its prime time experiment is in trouble is fascinating the most fascinating part of the network’s decision to move Ed Shultz back to weeknights.  The problem with the move was less with promoting Chris Hayes to the 8 p.m. slot and more with the rationale for demoting Shultz. Moving Shultz to start a weekend afternoon block with MSNBC talking head Karen Finney was an interesting yet unwarranted demotion. The move was driven by the Internet culture critic’s love affair with Shultz’s replacement Chris Hayes. Worst of all, it was a wrong turn.

Chris Hayes

Removing a successful primetime host like Shultz and his rabid blue-collar Democrat audience and replacing him with a relative neophyte i.e. Hayes with a contrasting style, smaller audience who’s learning on the fly; it rarely works. In this case, that rabid audience fled the time slot. It’s a cocky maneuver that only Fox could get away with in this era. The risk is high. Audiences are hard to gain and easy to lose.  This does not prevent that Hayes will never find his footing. Perhaps in time he’ll find his prime time voice. His weekend show which still airs 8AM on Saturdays and Sundays with its new host Steve Kornacki allows breathing room to wade into grad school political fistfights with intellectuals over two hours with little competition from his competitors on the other networks. Beyond that Hayes a faced the deflating political news marketplace and breaking news does not drive viewers to MSNBC.

MSNBC once christened itself “The Place for Politics.” It and most of cable news is just that. Its ratings fortunes rise and fall with the political season. When politicians share the stage with the rest of the news world firebrands harping on principle isn’t as appealing to audiences. MSNBC felt that it was finally more than this. This is a falsehood.

Cable News is about trust, dedication, and clarity.  MSNBC has none. When you have no trust, dedication, or clarity viewers only flock to you when it is your season. For CNN its breaking news, for HLN its sensationalistic trials and investigations and for MSNBC and Fox News its elections. Fox News’ ratings returned to mean, as have MSNBCs. MSNBC’s mean is lower than Fox News’ because Fox News viewers know what its, MSNBC’s viewers do not.

MSNBC’s liberal, politics fueled, mosh pit of pundits rode the momentum of the 2012 election year into a firm second place footing the cable news rankings. In 2012, MSNBC’s ratings jumped by double digits. Led by Rachel Maddow, the network reached the highs not seen since Countdown with Keith Olbermann’s height in the midst of yet another election year 2008. Olbermann left the left the network in early 2011.

Ed Schultz

Shultz, a rare successful liberal talk radio host, was a bit player on the network. The abrupt departure of Olbermann Shultz into the forefront, first as Maddow’s lead out and most successfully as Maddow’s lead in. The ill-fitting Ed Schultz and his blue-collar mad dog shout fest approach to political TV was  the contrast to Maddow’s erudite style. Hayes, like Maddow and fellow prime time host Lawrence O’Donnell’s show share Countdown’s DNA.  They’re brainy, wordy, and nerdy intellectualists.  This clear contrast, the Chris Hayes Internet press love fest, and the network’s ratings led to this change. These are severe misreading of reality. Election year ratings are clearly steroidal and should not be a part of any scheduling and contract decision-making. The love internet television community is not representative of the love of cable news audiences. Cable news audiences are among the oldest on television and glacial in their tastes. Hayes is clearly a dreamboat for the political conversation many young liberal bloggers hope will appear.  Worst of all,  the network believed it became the political home for the left, instead of becoming the political home for the left and counterweight to Fox News.

Fox News gradually built its foundation and the trust of its audience over half a decade becoming both the political and cultural home for the right. Every nook, cranny and everything in between is a shaped from a right slanted prospective. Fox News can afford to make dramatic shifts to its schedule (i.e. adding Glenn Beck riding him to massive success and dumping him less than two years later) because its audience trusts them. MSNBC’s morning co-host Joe Scarborough is a conservative. The bulk of MSNBC’s programming takes no obvious slant. A cultural home is not established with one good year or two or a prime time lineup. MSNBC’s slant is a blip in its history. Fox News’ slant is its history. MSNBC is not a true counterweight for Fox News. MSNBC is news organization with a success cranky liberal editorial page that’s quickly slanting the trajectory of the network. MSNBC must decide what it is or it will continue to fall victim to the ebbs and flows of the news cycle or embrace its slant. Once it chooses it trajectory it will gain its footing and audience over a period of years. Only then will the blows of the news cycle soften.