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.