Tempest in a Twitterpot: Why Keith Olbermann generated such a fuss

Keith Olbermann transported his signature show from MSNBC to the little-watched Current TV, almost quadrupling their ratings – and setting off a twitterstorm by running long.

Mark J. Terrill / AP / File
In this 2007 file photo, Keith Olbermann poses at the Ronald Reagan Library in Simi Valley, Calif. In his first night on Current TV, Olbermann raised their 8 p.m. ratings from 50,000 to 179,000 viewers, according to internal numbers.

Former MSNBC commentator Keith Olbermann is back, having transported his signature show – mostly intact − to Current TV, the cable channel co-founded in 2005 by former Vice President Al Gore.

And he brought at least some of his viewers with him on his first night out. Among adults 25 to 54 – a sought-after advertiser demographic – Current TV had 179,000 viewers Monday night, according to their own figures. By comparison, MSNBC had 237,000 viewers in that demographic, and CNN had 89,000.

After nearly half a year off the air, “Countdown with Keith Olbermann” debuted in the 8 p.m. slot Monday night. The show ran a few minutes late, thus overlapping with his former MSNBC colleague, Rachel Maddow. Her fans tweeted their disapproval. Heated rounds of digital dustup ensued.

What better way to come back to the air than with a tiny tempest in the Twitterpot?

This Twitter fuss is a gift to the marketing department at Current TV, says Paul Levinson, a media professor at Fordham University.

Current TV needs all the help it can get, he adds. While it is currently available in some 60 million US homes, via most major cable carriers, its programming has failed to attract meaningful audiences. The 8 p.m. slot has been averaging some 50,000 viewers, so Monday night’s ratings represent a massive jump.

“Picking up Olbermann was a very bright move for Current,” says Professor Levinson. The show “transplanted seamlessly,” he says, which indicates that Mr. Olbermann brought MSNBC success, not vice versa.

Olbermann brings "street cred" to Current TV, says Tim Massie, adjunct professor of communications at Marist College in Poughkeepsie, New York.

“A network needs a marquee name or program. Fox has Bill O'Reilly, MSNBC still had Rachel Maddow, but Current had no one on camera. Their biggest claim to fame was Al Gore's behind-the-scenes involvement,” Professor Massie adds via email. Controversy creates news, he says, adding that media dustups gain traction among other media.

What Current wants from Olbermann

If Olbermann can bring his million or so viewers – as he has brought the title, opening music, and overall feeling of the show – from MSNBC, he’ll fulfill half of the Current’s hopes for the fiery rhetorician, says Robert Thompson, founder of the Bleier Center of Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University in New York.

What’s the other half?

Every upstart channel needs a show that will force people to “pick up their remotes and slog through the cable channel line-up to actually locate that channel on their system,” says Professor Thompson.

For Bravo TV, that was “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy,” he says. “Before ‘Mad Men,’ AMC was a little-known movie channel.”

But does Olbermann have the drawing power of “Mad Men” or “Queer Eye”?

It’s too soon to know, but Olbermann says that he is “very pleased” with the first show’s ratings, and the network agrees, saying, “The feedback we've received from viewers, advertisers, and our distribution partners about Keith Olbermann's show on Current has been extremely positive."

A more-fluid media landscape?

Olbermann’s leap onto a little-known perch echoes moves by other high-profile TV figures like Oprah and Conan O’Brien. Despite his tempestuous employment history, Olbermann was well compensated for the move. While his salary remains confidential, his title is “Chief News Officer,” and he has been given an equity stake in the channel.

Not all that long ago, Levinson notes, someone fired from a lofty media seat would find few alternatives. “We are in a very revolutionary time. No longer does firing from one venue automatically mean media banishment.” As the number of outlets grows, he adds, this breadth is loosening the grip of corporate, profit-driven programming.

“I’m sure he wouldn’t sneer at profit,” says Levinson with a laugh, “but Al Gore is clearly driven by something more than money. He wants to expand the number of voices in our culture − and that is something worthwhile.”

“Keith Olbermann is a gifted thinker, an amazing talent and a powerful communicator,” Mr. Gore said when announcing Olbermann’s move to Current. “In a world where there are fewer and fewer opportunities to hear truly distinct, unfettered voices on television, we are delighted to provide Keith with the independent platform and freedom that Current can, and does uniquely offer.”

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