Rational Expectations Have a Way of Being Rational
The broadcast career of Keith Olbermann has been study of what happens when intelligence and common sense run into ego and ambition. Mr. Olbermann is a self made broadcaster and a highly intelligent person who used his background and experience in sports broadcasting to leverage himself into a prime time celebrity. His thoughtful and intelligent commentary and programming skills made him the star of MSNBC, and his mentoring of people like Rachael Maddow brought even more talent to the network. But . . .
Mr. Olbermann did excellent on-air work for CNN, Fox, ESPN, and MSNBC, but that never stopped him from burning bridges faster than they could be built. It rarely ended well in spite of his skills.
So what happened? Well, apparently with good reason Mr. Olbermann has been known to be difficult to work with. The quote about him was that when he left a job he didn’t just burn bridges behind him, he napalmed them. Of course, it usually take two parties to destroy a relationship as thoroughly as Mr. Olbermann and MSNBC did, and the network is not free from blame.
In any event, Mr. Olbermann went on to join Current TV (who?, exactly). His deal with Current TV was a rich one for Mr. Olbermann, designed to promote both Mr. Olbermann and the network into major league status. It hasn’t worked out quite that well.
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.
So now both sides have lawyers, never a good sign in any relationship, and Mr. Olbermann’s future in television is not looking great. After all when you cannot succeed in a cable channel that most people don’t even get, a channel that the people who do have it don’t know they have it and a channel where the people who do know they have it don’t watch it, well where do you go?
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.
Current news reporting needs Mr. Olbermann, heck even MSNBC needs Keith Olbermann. Their current lineup has only the very good Ms. Maddow on board, and the idea that Rev. Al Sharpton and Ed Schultz are replacing Mr. Olbermann is like Tom Cruise replacing Al Pacino in a Shakespearian role.
The message to Mr. Olbermann from this site is this. Think about Edward R. Morrow. Do what he would do, which is get on the air, do the job and leave the studio. You are very good, Mr. Olbermann at what you do, stick to it.