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Keith Olbermann: The Changing Face of Cable News?

January 25, 2011 1 comment

Keith Olbermann, who signed off abruptly last week

It was 7 am at CNN headquarters in Atlanta the week of July 15th, 1996. The weekly manager’s meeting had suddenly become daily, the gathering time moved up by some three hours. We all sat rather bleary-eyed around the room as, in somewhat of a controlled panic, we discussed the implications of the launch of MSNBC.

Fox News would launch its cable news network two months later and it had already been written about, but no one at CNN thought much of that effort; it was MSNBC everyone was worried about. While we all talked about MSNBC’s graphics and pacing and stylistics, we totally missed the real import of what was about to happen to American media.

As the head of CNN’s Radio division at the time, I was as clueless as everyone else. If I’d had one forward-thinking cell in my brain at the time, I would have foreseen that the secret to cable TV success was to emulate talk radio. Anger attracts listening and, as it turns out, TV talk programs focused on political anger, attract viewers. Plus they’re long shows which means audiences stay glued to their TV’s for extended periods- hence, better ratings.

Which brings us to Keith Olbermann. As it turned out, Fox News was the real competitive giant and it was soon beating CNN handily in the ratings. MSNBC eventually figured out that whole talk-radio thing and embraced itself, as Howard Kurtz puts it, as the “anti-Fox.” Keith Olbermann and angry liberal talk would soon overtake CNN as well and MSNBC had righted its ship and if not beating Fox, had at least become competitive and profitable.

As we fast forward to recent times, it turns out the old talk-radio formula is just possibly beginning to wear thin- on cable, anyway. The case is made here by John Avlon in an interesting piece in the Daily Beast. He makes the case that Keith Olbermann’s ratings, for all the success he helped bring to MSNBC, had been dropping. Avlon points out that Glenn Beck’s ratings are dropping at Fox too. He concludes it may be that the public is finally tiring of anger from both sides of the political spectrum.

Perhaps my own viewing habits have been representative of this trend. I watched all the cable news outlets like a madman in the months leading up to the 2008 Presidential election. By the week after the election, I had grown weary- exhausted, actually. The heated rhetoric just wore me down until I couldn’t take it anymore. Keith’s intensity and anger started grating on my basically moderate views. Sean Hannity had become so predictable.

And CNN seemed, as usual, obsessed with trying to be cool. I was amused when they introduced the super-duper high-tech maps that John King would manipulate with his touch-screen finger exercises. But they lost me when they introduced holographic representations of reporters, seemingly beaming up like Star Trek next to Wolf Blitzer in the Situation Room.

To this day, I’ll take a hockey or a baseball game over political talk on cable TV, any time.

And as for Keith, we won’t immediately know the full story about the behind-the-scenes drama as both sides seem to have a contractual agreement to avoid specifics over the next few months. Daily Beast’s Howard Kurtz presents a good take on the likely happenings here

When I was head of news coverage at ABC News Radio, my office contained quite a few files on Keith Olbermann, who had worked for the network under my predecessor. It wouldn’t be prudent to reveal their contents. But I will say this.

The last year of the old Shea stadium, some colleagues and I went to see the Cubs take on the Mets. Our passes allowed on-field access prior to the contest and I was standing near 3rd base when I spotted Keith Olbermann hanging out near the Cubs dugout. He had taken the night off from Countdown to revel in the baseball.

I walked up to him and introduced myself. I told him where I worked and that I had seen some of his files and joked that he was “quite the troublemaker.” He smiled a Cheshire-cat grin and said, “Well, somebody’s got to be.”

Yup. He’s been a handful everywhere he’s worked.  But he’s an enormously talented man and I wish him well in his next incarnation. Good night and good luck, Keith.

My First Brush With Curling

February 25, 2010 1 comment

(Courtesy MCT)

I am really quite late to the curling frenzy that is sweeping the world right now. But seeking to catch up as quickly as possible, I watched my first match just minutes ago. It was a very tight contest between Sweden and Great Britain that went to 11 ends. Sweden was the eventual victor, delaying Keith Olbermann by 16 minutes for his 8pm start time on MSNBC.

I am sure Keith didn’t mind one bit because it was an absolute nail-biter. The arena was thick with tension as the Swedish skip pushed off confidently from the hack. The stone seemed to glide hesitantly at first but the sweeping work of the Swedish lead and second was simply superb. You could see by the looks on the faces of the British team that they would, regrettably, be on the receiving end of a rousing broom stacking later that night. As everyone knows, though the beer is free, it is only gratis because you lost the contest.

But I digress. The yellow stone was guided smartly toward the house and just when it seemed it would stop short, slipped ever so gingerly right to the edge of the button. Then just like that, Sweden had completed its stirring come-from-behind effort after having tied up the contest in the 10th end using a clever tick and emerged with their dramatic victory over the Brits to head to the semi-finals of the Olympic bonspiel.

I was so moved by my first extended curling-viewing experience that I immediately turned to the World Wide Web, hungry for more information. I found out curling originated in Scotland in the early 1600’s, the best stones are made of Ailsite granite and they go for $1,500.

I also found out that curling humor is, well, puckish. Here are two curling jokes, courtesy of Sportsjokecafe.com:

Manager phones the home of an employee and gets one of the children on the phone.

“Could I speak to your dad, please”

“My mom and dad are away at a curling bonspiel”

“Well when your dad gets home ask him to phone his boss at work, I need to know how long he’ll be away with his broken leg”

But, wait, there’s more (with apologies to my religious friends):

Is curling a biblical sport? Yes, replied Jesus: “Let he who is without spin cast the first stone.”

There are some things I already knew about curling. For some odd reason I have visited nearly every major city in Canada and have many Canadian friends. So what I know is certain about curling, is that going to a bonspiel (a tournament) is actually an excuse to get completely shit-faced. This totally explains why anyone would think the two jokes above come anywhere close to resembling humor, as it is traditionally defined.

The only other observation I would make after my intimate brush (get it, get it?) with curling is that, every now and again, it is fun to visit another planet.

Categories: Culture, Sports Tags: , , , ,
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