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Does Keith Olbermann Matter? And How Should His Success Be Measured?
June 27, 2011  | By Eric Mink

If there's a sharper, more passionate writer than Keith Olbermann working in television news today -- someone who wields the raw power of nouns and verbs better than he does -- I don't know who it is.

Olbermann, whose second incarnation of Countdown with Keith Olbermann premiered June 20 on Current TV, has something else, too. When he's got his best game on, he's among that tiny minority of communicators with physical features, personality traits, intellectual attributes, mechanical skills and a certain something no one can define that let him project his image and voice through an electronic transmission system and juice up the emotions of viewers and listeners when his digitized self appears on their video screens.


All that stipulated, I also can not name anyone else in the field who is a more tangled rat's nest of contradictions than the furious, anti-corporate, populist outsider who has become a multi-millionaire servicing the profit motives of Capital Cities/ABC, the Walt Disney Company, Microsoft, General Electric and even the News Corporation of Rupert Murdoch, a.k.a. media's Prince of Darkness.

Olbermann's latest home, Current Media LLC, is a privately held, for-profit entity co-founded by a Nobel Peace Prize-winning, Oscar-awarded documentarian with 24 years in the U.S. Congress and the vice presidency of the United States (but not, by the skin of his radiant teeth, the U.S. presidency). Albert Arnold Gore Jr.'s fellow Currenters include a complement of senior executives with roots in and connections to Viacom, Hewlett-Packard, Booz Allen Hamilton, etc., etc., etc.

All due respect, anti-corporate populist outsiders they ain't.

And that doesn't even count Comcast, the 10-percent investor in Current and the media omnivore that just swallowed NBC/Universal, including MSNBC. Olbermann fled from MSNBC last January just before the Comcast takeover closed. Among other reasons, there was a suggestion that he worried the new guys might slap content restrictions on his show.

So, fine. If he's going to play in the big leagues, he has to work for somebody who owns a team.

As to the games themselves, Olbermann has tried to tamp down ratings expectations. In a brief conference call with reporters the Friday before launch week, Olbermann said what everybody on the line already knew: All the characterizations of his early ratings, whether by competitors or by Current TV itself, would be, he said, "bullshit."

Not being an advertiser or an investor, I don't really care what ratings Countdown gets, but I do wonder about an appropriate measure of success for Olbermann and the show.

Day to day, of course, experience and instinct will tell him and his production team whether they did a good show: what worked, what didn't work, what should have worked better.


The first week was heavy on the latter.

Most consistent, it seemed to me, were the hyper-drive openings and news summaries, replete with Olbermannic kickers. Most inconsistent were the follow-up interview/analysis segments. Olbermann pulled good material out of John Dean, Ken Vogel, Andy Kroll and Jonathan Turley, but a fair number of segments went nowhere. Sometimes the problem was the interviewee (say, Rep. James Clyburn, Janeane Garofalo, Anita Dunn), and sometimes it was the interviewer (i.e. Olbermann with Matt Taibbi and Matthew Hoh).

Olbermann's signature bits were more uneven still, although they smoothed out as the week wore on.

"Special Comments," for example, didn't hit its stride until Thursday's mostly quiet but insightful piece on gay marriage.


"The Most Worstest Person of the Day Ever in the Universe" (whatever) struggled even more. On Monday, Olbermann nailed a young New York commuter who was shown on video trying and failing miserably to salvage a shred of dignity after she was chastised by a train conductor for disturbing passengers with loud profanity during a cell phone call.

Forget that the woman looked awfully small compared to the day's other contenders: Sarah Palin and Fox News' Chris Wallace. Forget that the video felt like pandering to Olbermann's legions of web-centric fans. Forget, even, that nobody really knew what happened in the time before and after a fellow passenger caught her between "record" and "stop" on his smart phone.

Olbermann fared better later in the week when he remembered that American politics is a target-rich environment for shaming and mockery and that populists are better advised to look up, not down, for their raw material. When he did, he found an abundance of apt honorees, including a babbling Rick Santorum, a clueless Georgia state legislator, and recurring targets Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck.

Even so, it's mystifying that Olbermann didn't get around to worsting Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, who authored a 5-4 majority opinion last week telling 1.5 million American women to take a hike. They didn't have enough in common, Scalia wrote, to sue Wal-Mart Stores Inc. as a unified class of plaintiffs.

Apparently, the charge that current and former female employees of the world's largest retailer were paid less than male employees wasn't unifying enough. Neither was the charge that their promotions were fewer and fell shorter than those of their male counterparts. Nor was the charge that the monster-truck culture of the Arkansas-founded behemoth subjected female employees to more taunts, leers, nicknames and butt grabs than male employees could ever dream of.

Instead, Scalia and his four fellow corporateers stood unified in defense of Wal-Mart. And its $405 billion in 2010 revenue. And all of Big Corporate America. Against working Americans. AGAIN. (This stuff almost writes itself, once you get going!)


Specifics aside, the question remains: If not ratings, by what measure should we judge the success of Olbermann's Countdown on Current. Households with access to the channel? Ad revenue? Web traffic? Blog posts? Social media action? Corporate (gasp!) profitability?

Politics is the metier of the show, as Olbermann might put it, so isn't political influence a reasonable standard of success? Was Countdown on MSNBC a player in the national political conversation? Can Countdown on Current be? Jon Stewart's The Daily Show certainly is, although I couldn't point to a Nielsen stat to prove it. Is there a clear path to relevance and influence?

In the early 1990s, HBO was starting to break out of the isolation of pay cabledom and into the mainstream of American popular culture. One of its most effective tools was something called "quality noise." Bob Cooper, who ran HBO's original movies operation, explained at the time that "quality noise" included word of mouth, critical buzz, distinctiveness from what the competition was doing, and a hard-to-pin-down sense that if you missed, say, the Josephine Baker film or the Stalin miniseries (or, much later, The Sopranos, Entourage or Curb Your Enthusiasm), you'd feel out of it.

The media universe was expanding when HBO made its move 20 years ago, and it still is. But there's infinitely more noise now than there was then, and few would argue that "quality" has much to do with it.

Even so, Olbermann still has to generate word of mouth and demonstrate distinctiveness. He still has to show he has something of value to add to the public policy discussion.

It has to be more than an artfully written, astutely delivered stew of fact-based bile and bombast. It has to be more than echo-chamber validation of progressive values and arguments. What he says also has to matter somehow.

That's Olbermann's real challenge.


Eric Mink -- ericmink1@gmail.com -- most recently was the Op-Ed editor and columnist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. He previously covered television and media for the Post-Dispatch and the New York Daily News. Mink now teaches film studies at Webster University in St. Louis and provides writing and editing services to independent clients.



Robbie Engel said:

Fair and balanced column Eric - really. My husband and I watched Olbermann regularly, but we do not get Current TV. We also watch Rachel Maddow (our personal favorite) and never miss Stewart and Colbert (ya gotta laugh or it can get to be a bit overwhelming and depressing...)
Olbermann is a contradiction - his business dealngs, which you profiled, are perflexing. And he is sometimes "over the-top" and uneven. But he is also brilliant, passionate, courageous, and one of the only effective anectdotes to the Limbaughs and O'Reilly's of the world. We miss him, and hope to get Current TV soon.
I do wish the contradictions were less evident...but with Fox and fluff ruling the airwaves, we need Keith.
Please keep me on your mailing list. Hope all is well...your writing continues to be concise, interesting, and intelligent.
All the best, Robbie Engel

Comment posted on June 27, 2011 11:03 PM

Allan R. Shickman said:

I don't follow Olbermann, but as usual I was impressed with the acuteness of your thinking and the energy of your style.

Off the topic: Did Douglas J. Feith ever say: "We will eliminate the middle class and crush the poor."? If so, where? Do you happen to know?


Comment posted on June 28, 2011 12:02 AM

craig baumberger said:

That sounds like Keith. Always thought it was great that someone was pointing out the inablity of the Right to identify the damage caused 2000 to the present by their inablity to govern efficiently, and their unwillingness to accept the responsibility for the problems we face. I hope that he can find a way to connect with voters that are willing to make a decision based on facts instead the propaganda that will be broadcast for the next eighteen months.

Comment posted on June 28, 2011 9:37 AM

Jim Mayer said:

Excellent summary of Obermann's style and content!

Comment posted on June 28, 2011 10:43 AM

B. D. Colen said:

A terrific piece - as usual - Eric. But there's one important question I'd really like to see you take on in another piece:

Though Oberman's politics are what many of us would consider "correct," isn't he has much a danger to the functioning of our consensus-based political system, and as much a destroyer of civility, as his counterparts on Fox? Isn't he as much an example of what's wrong with the 24-hour news cycle in particular, and journalism in general, as Fox and the like?

Comment posted on June 28, 2011 11:17 AM

Joan Caro said:

Great article, Eric, as usual. Permission to forward to friends?

Comment posted on June 28, 2011 11:39 AM

Eric Mink said:

Robbie: I don't blame Olbermann for working for those companies; they're the team owners, to continue my fairly flimsy metaphor. I just think it's a fascinating contrast to his issue positions. Such is life.
Allan: I think it would take a LOT of research to see if the despised Feith ever said such a thing in a venue where they'd be proof of it. I kind of doubt it; he's not stupid.
Craig: I think you and I share that hope for connection with thinking voters.
Jim: Many thanks!

Comment posted on June 28, 2011 12:26 PM

george snap said:


Comment posted on June 28, 2011 2:49 PM

Max Hettiger said:

Current society has an odd way of valuing communication. Facebook and Twitter have not yet gone public. But secondary market trading suggests that Facebook would fetch a price of more than $75 billion and Twitter as much as $8 billion. As for their real value to the human race, they're probably not worth a damn.
Olbermann on cable has, in my opine, an intrinsic value in his collective characteristics, for good or ill, that make him a distinctive antithesis to his polar opposites. Personally, I find his outrage in relaying the message entertaining, like Mort Sahl doing political bits from the daily newspaper he held in his hand. That's worth a damn.

Comment posted on June 28, 2011 5:49 PM

Valery Starr said:

I admit I'm a Countdown fan and have recorded the new Current TV's rendition each & every day. I have enjoyed "soaking it all up" at my leisure this past week and 2 days. Olbermann's wit, sports trivia tidbits, goofy sense of humor and Friday's with James Thurber calm me, entertain me and more importantly, inform me. I totally enjoy the new show. There are some technical issues though, relating to sound consistency that need improvement but that's probably on the mechanics at Current TV, not the Countdown crew. Also the recording program codes that allow one to record daily, all new shows, need to be "looked at" or "adjusted." I have Dish TV and I designated all New Countdown shows, daily, and it tells me Monday Tuesday Wednesday etc are all the same. I must go into each day and override it to record the daily "new" show; worth it of course. Also, Eric Mink, you have done a fair & balanced review. You ask us (or rhetorically ask us) how can we tell if his show is successful? Just ask young people -- it's the older people like me that have to discover Current TV and figure out how to record it ONCE daily.

Comment posted on June 28, 2011 10:23 PM

CGA said:

Pretty good column Eric. You were more than fair and balanced in presenting Olbermann, to my thinking you were exceptionally fair. It is my sense that he is a jerk and nasty buffoon who bullies everyone from his media pulpit and is never fair or balanced.

Comment posted on June 29, 2011 8:29 AM

Eric Mink said:

B.D.: The questions you raise, all totally legit, could merit their own column and then some. In just one sentence, though, I'd say there is not full equivalency and that differences of degree really do matter.
Max: As you note, financial valuations operate in their own strange universe. But at some point, the INtrinsic value you find in Olbermann's work will have to be translated into EXtrinsic value by the business people who do such things. I like the Mort Sahl comparison, and I'd bet Olbermann would, too.
Valery: Whatever your age (I bet it's a lower number than mine), you have satellite service and DVR capability. The fact that Current and Dish can't get their signals straight says that they need to catch up with YOUR technological sophistication, not the other way around.

Comment posted on June 29, 2011 1:08 PM

Eric Mink said:

And JOAN: I'm delighted that you think the piece is worth forwarding, and I think I also speak for Dave, Diane, et al. when I say that permission, while not required, is happily granted!

Comment posted on June 29, 2011 1:11 PM

Paul said:


I think I forgot what an asture media critic you are. This is the Olbermann I saw that first week: flaws and flights of fancy, wit and wisdom, production and sound screw-ups.....but pure Keith, a wonderful bowl of bile and humor. Welcome back, Keith! and thanks, Eric for you insights.

Comment posted on June 29, 2011 1:25 PM

rianal said:

i've been following his post-sportscasting career since back when his audience was so tiny that he read, and often answered, email from viewers, and i think keith's greatest contributions to this point are in expanding MSNBC's viewership; drawing people to current and the excellent VANGUARD series; and bringing visibility to rachel maddow.

Comment posted on June 30, 2011 12:48 PM

Erin said:

Valery: I have Dish, too, this is my work-around for the recording problem...your mileage may vary.

1) Go to DVR>Schedule>Timers.
2) Select Countdown.
3) Select Edit.
4) Choose M-F (not daily, not New, not all, but M-F).
5) Select Done.

90% of the time this works for me, but sometimes you have to add one more step.

6) After choosing M-F, choose Edit Time. Set the specific hour you want to record.

Hope that helps.

Comment posted on June 30, 2011 3:16 PM

Eric Mink said:

CGA: Glad you appreciated the column. You don't specify the basis for your personal characterizations of Olbermann, but in my experience, it's very risky to conclude anything about any individual based solely on public performances. I don't know Olbermann other than through his television work. I have no idea what kind of person he is. As for his opinion-driven show, it makes no claim to be "fair and balanced," words that lost their meaning when they were appropriated for a wildly distorted marketing slogan. However, I believe that Olbermann's material is, as I described it in the column, fact-based, rather than invented or twisted beyond any resemblance to fact, as some other shows are.

Comment posted on June 30, 2011 4:36 PM

Eric Mink said:

Paul: Thanks very much for the kind comments.

Comment posted on June 30, 2011 4:38 PM

tori said:

I cannot understand Olbermann's appeal. I find his TV persona to be nerdish and not in the endearingly awkward, brilliant, one-day-we-will-rule-the-world way but in an arrogant, superficially intense and borderline boring way. I don't think he is particularly insightful but he is rather pedantic. From his artificially deep anouncer's voice (think Gary Owens from Laugh In) to his sadly dated sign-off ("aloha", really? Hawaii Five-O?) his analysis of the news lacks both wit and incisive thought. And Keith, would it kill you to use a little humor now and then? Lighten up.

Comment posted on July 5, 2011 1:19 PM

Dave M said:

As I always suspected, with few exceptions, it is obvious that Mr. Mink's readers, whether agreeing or disagreeing, are intelligent, thoughtful and literate. Rare, very rare indeed.

Comment posted on July 11, 2011 4:42 PM
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