The Demise of Keith Olbermann
by Tom Donelson on April 3, 2012 at 11:26 AM
Keith Olbermann is no longer with Current TV, and he can add this network to his resume of networks that sent him packing. The question that remains is how does a bright individual who had the looks, the voice, and even a sense of humor, everything needed for success, be near the end of his career?
For those who may not remember, Olbermann teamed with Dan Patrick to make up a potent duo as ESPN leading broadcasters. Both men worked well together as they laid out zingers while reading the sport news. There were times one got the feeling that both men would occasionally wink at their audience and say, “Don’t take this too seriously.” When both men were at their peak, ESPN became a powerhouse in its own right and no small part due to the dynamic duo of sports broadcasting. ABC even produced a fictional show Sports Night based on the Patrick-Olbermann program.
In 1997, a rift between Olberman and ESPN developed, with Olbermann moving ever so briefly with MSNBC, but Olbermann left MSNBC since he got tired of covering the Monica Lewinsky scandal during the Clinton years. (He later returned to MSNBC after yet another network fired him.) This followed with a tour at Fox Broadcasting, which included being both executive producer and anchor of the Keith Olbermann Evening News and being active in Fox coverage of baseball including the World Series.
Like ESPN previously, Olbermann had his dispute with management which ended with his firing from Fox. From there, Olbermann joined MSNBC and it was here that he changed the nature of NBC news. From his perch at Countdown, Olbermann adopted a partisan approach to his program, essentially creating a jihad against the Bush Administration and conservatism in general. With his worst person of the day, he routinely awarded this award to whatever conservative or Republican that irritated him on a particular day, and for added bonus, he had a public feud with Bill O’Reilly, his competitor at the 8 pm time slot. (At the 2006 Television Critics’ Association, Olbermann made a Nazi salute while standing behind a Bill O’Reilly face mask, signifying not only his public feud with O’Reilly but the general attitude of the Left about Fox and conservatives.)
During the 2008 elections, there were many within NBC news, along with those on the outside, complaining about the partisan nature of Olbermann, but eventually Olbermann's style won out and MSNBC's evening news ceased to be about news and more about promoting the hard left's agenda. The hyper partisan had its successes as opposition to the Bush Administration and the war attracted a loyal leftist audience. It also ceded much of the middle ground to Fox News who took an ever bigger lead in the ratings. Olbermann found himself falling further behind his chief nemesis, Bill O’Reilly, and the rest of the Fox evening shows shot ahead of their competitors at CNN and MSNBC.
Just as with ESPN and Fox Sports, disagreement with the MSNBC brass ended Olbermann’s tenure but then, Olbermann was no longer the witty broadcaster but simply an angry leftist pundit. His failure to raise Current TV was in part due to the reality that there were plenty of options for leftists and liberals to get their news including MSNBC, and the angry man ranting about the sins of America no longer truly sold.
The lesson here is that Olbermann forgot what made himself a success early in his career and his competitors even more successful. While the left still tries to silence Rush Limbaugh, he is now stronger than ever before with an even higher audience, but the real secret with Limbaugh is that he connects with his audience on a more personal basis which is allowing him to triumph. Limbaugh's success was due to many factors, but there is one often overlooked. Rush Limbaugh comes off as a nice guy to those who actually listen to him, and his audience's loyalty exists because he never forgets that his popularity is due to those who listen, and he respects his audience.
What the left failed to recognize is that there was more to Limbaugh's success than his political opinion. His touch as an entertainer explained a major reason for his successes. There are a lot of conservatives on radio and quite a few success esin their own ways, but Limbaugh is the king of talk radio and this has come because of his combination of his knowledge, empathy for his audience, and a little showmanship. The closest the left has to Limbaugh is Jon Stewart, whose comedic style allows him to rip the right with smile on his face and even his critics occasionally are forced to chuckle.
In looking back at the failure of Air America, it was predicated on the notion that Limbaugh's success was strictly political, and all they had to do was to counter his conservatism. What they overlooked was his entertainment ability, nor it didn't help that many of those broadcasting sounded angry without any humor or entertainment value and listening to some of these broadcasters was like listening to fingers rolling across a chalkboard. The one Air America personality who got it was Rachel Maddow, and she moved to MSNBC where she essentially became the new MSNBC star after the departure of Olbermann.
What killed Olbermann is that he became on the air what he appeared off the air, a bitter, pompous individual incapable of generating much loyalty and always fighting with those that he worked with. The reality is that audiences need to accept the person on the other side of the TV screen or radio before they become loyal. Fox's successes come from two things. The first being as Charles Krauthammer noted, “Fox created a niche audience, half of America.” The second is that there is more diversity on Fox at night including a real news broadcast and broadcasters who appeal to a wider audience while being entertaining. There is less angst and less anger on Fox compared to MSNBC whose broadcaster on many occasions labels a good portion of their opponents as ignorant racist fools, and after a while the audience ceases to enjoy being called stupid by people who are more cranks than serious pundits. Olbermann's failure is much of the left’s failure, for he probably hated at least half of America and let it show. And much of America rewarded him and the networks he toiled at for the past decade by watching his rivals.