Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Keith Olbermann's Dilemma: Il Divo and the Deep Blue Sea

Poor Keith. Imploding again. This time at Current.

And it was all going so well. MSNBC balked, the self-styled Murrow wannabe bolted unexpectedly, subsequently bagging a deal worth 50 million dollars over a five-year period from Al Gore and co, which included Olbermann in a management position at Current, heading the news part of that organisation with a brief to expand it.

Ne'mind, he took a lot of disgruntled MSNBC rejects with him - David Schuster, banished for (amongst other things) asserting that Hillary pimped out Chelsea during the 2008 campaign, Markos Moulitsas, for tweeting about the dead intern in Joe Scarborough's Florida office all those years ago, and Cenk Uygur, for being a generally obnoxious and totally unprofessional asshole - but that's beside the point.

When Keith abruptly announced last year that he was quitting MSNBC, for reasons known only unto Keith, a Facebook friend and I speculated if he wouldn't be lured eventually to CNN or even Fox.

As outlandish as it seems, I could see Keith at Fox News. He'd worked for them before, and besides, Roger Ailes is a businessman. He employs liberals (of a sort) at Fox, and as Fox was part and parcel of "free" stations which come attached to a digital package, more people would be able to avail themselves of Keith's "wisdom." A whole new tranche of viewer would tune into Fox - if only for Keith's program - and the network would then have some sort of real claim to being "fair and balanced."

CNN was another matter, especially since they had tried to secure Keith's talents before. In 2006, Jonathan Klein had approached CNN boss, Jim Walton, with the idea of poaching Olbermann from MSNBC, but Walton demurred, stating that he wasn't going to hire "the guy who would turn CNN into an opinion network."

When it was announced that Keith had pulled a mega deal with Current, I remember remarking that I'd give it a year before he started sniping with Gore and Co.

I feel vindicated.

The broadcaster Keith Olbermann is famous for estranging himself from his bosses, be it at ESPN, Fox or MSNBC.

At his new home, Al Gore’s Current TV, he has done it in record time.

Mr. Olbermann, who was hired last year to be the top star of the upstart liberal news source, had been on the job scarcely three months when trouble started. He declined Current’s requests to host special hours of election coverage, apparently out of frustration about technical difficulties that have plagued his 8 p.m. program, “Countdown.”

The channel decided to produce election shows without him. Mr. Olbermann, however, said he did not know that, and on Tuesday, the day of the Iowa caucus, the cold war of sorts reached a flash point. He held a staff meeting even though “Countdown” had been pre-empted.

Perceiving it to be an act of defiance, David Bohrman, Current’s president, wrote a memo to Mr. Olbermann’s staff telling them that the anchor had long ago given up the opportunity to anchor on election nights. “We assumed,” he wrote, that “Keith had communicated to you.”

Same old same old, then. At MSNBC, Olbermann communicated with top brass and with his staff via written memos and notes left in a box outside his office door. When he abruptly resigned, the first his newly-unemployed staff knew about the decision was when Keith dramatically announced that that particular episode of Countdown would be the network's last.

And some things, including Olbermann's pompous and increasingly childish behaviour, never change, as David Carr reports in The New York Times.

As it turned out, past performance was a good predictor of results going forward. Current executives have been reduced to communicating with their biggest talent through his manager and lawyer, with both sides working the media to get their story out. By creating drama in yet another high-profile assignment, Mr. Olbermann could be running out of options, but don’t bet the house on that, given how desperate cable channels are for anyone who can generate ratings, never mind the rough edges.

Having worked for big, moneyed cable outfits in the past, Mr. Olbermann was clearly disappointed in the deep technical problems at Current TV, a cable news start-up that had trouble producing live news programming, including “Countdown,” his 8 p.m. show. He declined to lead the channel’s special political coverage until those problems were resolved, but Current TV officials called his bluff and went ahead without him, pre-empting his show in the process. It was a game of chicken in which everybody ended up with egg on their faces.

The impasse has been remarkable to behold, even if few people are watching. Mr. Olbermann, who is reportedly being paid $50 million over the course of a five-year contract, had more than a million viewers when he left at MSNBC at the start of last year, but in the most recent ratings period, he was reaching just 200,000 people a night at Current TV, according to Nielsen. He’s been very disappointed in those numbers, and the fact that the channel has hired talent and built out capacity on the West Coast without his input. After a summer of production problems that never seemed to be resolved, a power failure darkened his studio last month. He responded by sitting in the dark.

Current TV executives are going through all kinds of gyrations to patch things together, while at the same time expressing surprise that Mr. Olbermann is acting like, well, Mr. Olbermann. When I talked to David Bohrman, president of the channel, he praised the quality of Mr. Olbermann’s show; but when I asked him about coverage of the New Hampshire primary on Tuesday night, all he could say on Friday was, “I hope Keith is part of our political coverage on Tuesday night and beyond,” adding, “That’s up to him.”

This has turned into an exaggerated version of a spoiled child refusing to do the bidding of a parent, holding his breath until it turns Democratic blue. Current wanted Keith to anchor the network's primary coverage, which would have meant pre-empting Countdown. Keith refused - his argument being that he held control over his show's content and that the network had no right to pre-empt it. I suppose Keith's pearls of wisdom in his Special Comments are far more important than covering and commenting on the selection of a candidate who could, ostensibly, become President of the United States.

I suppose Keith doesn't really give a rat's ass about who the Republican nominee will be; after all, Keith doesn't vote. The reason for that, allegedly, is that he wants to maintain his journalistic integrity, which happens to conflict with the reason why Olbermann was suspended from MSNBC for a time at the end of 2010 - for contributing to the campaigns of three Democratic Congressional candidates.

Harken unto what he told Politico at the time:-

“I did not privately or publicly encourage anyone else to donate to these campaigns, nor to any others in this election or any previous ones, nor have I previously donated to any political campaign at any level,”

This is all a hissyfit of the grandest proportions. It's no wonder that when European political commentators seek opinion from their American counterparts, the only ones they continuously take seriously are the likes of David Gergen, Jamie Rubin and Pat Effing Buchanan. After all, Olbermann is a man who presents himself as the natural successor to Ed Murrow, patterning his delivery and vocal intonations after the great man, himself.

But Olbermann's no Murrow.

You wouldn't have Murrow reading bedtime stories to his viewers on a regular basis on his show, which is what Olbermann does at the end of every Friday broadcast. Nor would you have Murrow, or any newsman worth his weight, giggling and joking about rape victims, make openly sexist remarks about women politicians or when reporting an assault on Paris Hilton, remarking that she'd had worse stuff than a fist in her face.

And you'd never have caught Murrow openly referring to any President of the United States as either a quisling or a Nazi appeaser, the way Keith so professionally did at the end of 2010 when the President effected the compromise on the Bush tax cuts.

But Current was supposed to be different. Along with the mega salary, came a piece of the corporate pie. Olbermann was enlisted, not only as the Chief News Officer, but as an actual shareholder - a pretty good trade-off for going from a million viewers nightly to little over 200,000. The idea was to expand, and Keith became the brand to sell.

Current soon found out, however, what everyone else, from ESPN to Fox to MSNBC, already knew - that KO is no team player.

Executives at the channel say the embarrassing public fight has more to do with his unwillingness to play, let alone play well, with others. Which is kind of a running meme in Mr. Olbermann’s career, but this time was supposed to be different.

By enrolling him at a high level in the remaking of Current TV and keeping the bureaucracy at a minimum at the small, privately held company, Mr. Gore and Joel Hyatt, the founders, hoped that the brilliant but chronically oppressed anchor would find the angel of his better nature. No angel has been forthcoming. Instead Mr. Olbermann has expressed multiple grievances through letters from his lawyers.

I don't know if all this is typical Keith, being the pompous, blowhard asshole that he is, in a plea for attention or an attempt to win Current more premium subscriptions, but it's not the sort of thing in which anyone who took news and political commentary seriously would indulge. Instead, it's the stuff of an almost 53 year-old overgrown and petulant child. it reeks of what we have become as well - overgrown, petulant children distraught and disappointed at a big daddy President who couldn't satisfy our need for instant gratification. We namecall. We sulk out the vote. Poutrage.

It's not enough that we have cynical political commentators who feed our discontent with deliberate misinformation, we also have the occasional honest one whose emotionally stunted enough in his own childhood that he encourages such behaviour in his viewers.

No comments:

Post a Comment