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Keith Olbermann: The Changing Face of Cable News?

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.

  1. January 30, 2011 at 7:54 pm

    good work dear.

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