ANALYSIS: Tim Goodman Asks, Did Keith Olbermann Just Make a Huge Mistake?

3:38 PM PST 02/08/2011 by Tim Goodman
Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images

By going to Current TV, the former MSNBC host may not be current again.

Keith Olbermann knows a lot about history.  And media. And comebacks. So no doubt he’s familiar with the last time a big name anchor had an acrimonious fall out with his employer, only to turn up on a tiny cable channel, preaching the joys of freedom to do whatever he wanted.

That man was Dan Rather. And he’s at HDNet.

If your first reaction to that was, “Dan Rather’s still alive?” Or, “HDWhat?,” then, well, Olbermann might have some issues ahead of him as he goes over to Current TV, aka Al Gore’s Channel That Nobody Watches. Frankly, this whole thing would have been loads more fun had Olbermann gone to Fox News or ran for senator or relocated to the UK so he could mock American politics – three of 15 wishes/guesses I had for him that didn’t pan out.

Instead, Olbermann will go to a cable channel that initially tried to run on user generated content from the youth market, until people realized that the youth market had better things to do – like illegally download HBO and just released movies. Oh, and then there was the whole YouTube issue. Apparently that giant elephant in the room was, shockingly, really gigantic. And popular. So Current did a bunch of its own stuff – some of it very cool and interesting to the people who made it and their families who watched it. No, seriously, Current had some interesting content that I can vaguely remember watching.

And by the way, Rather is doing great work. But almost no one sees it. HDNet is a premium subscription service best known these days as the home for mixed martial arts, cool concerts and some movies and the occasional Shuttle launch.

Is Current TV really that obscure? Not exactly. But it’s not as different as you might suspect. Olbermann may be going to a cable channel that is in 60 million homes, but roughly 59,975,00 of those homes don’t know they have Current.  And that’s a problem.

Will Olbermann’s much ballyhooed presence on – what is it called again? – turn around the ratings come spring? You bet it will. I can barely contain my enthusiasm for the Current TV press release that will say, “Olbermann’s debut out performs year-to-date ratings by 1 billion hundred million percent.”

Of course, that will not be enough to make Current truly relevant. And Olbermann’s numbers will be impressive, no doubt, but will fade over time down to his most ardent, core followers. The DVR numbers will be incredibly important as well, since time-shifted watching will, ultimately, be the great percentage of his ratings. And he will get quite a spike during election season.

It will be, in many ways, very successful for Olbermann. I’ve known and liked him for a lot of years and if there’s one thing you can say about the man, it’s that he’s a force to be reckoned with. He is beyond a cult of personality. He’s a kind of mesmerizing magnet. When his loyal fans run into him, the adoration is scary. Besides, Olbermann is a big dude. It’s not a meek kind of meeting. I’ve seen celebrities roll down their windows and tell him he’s doing God’s work. His ability to eviscerate his enemies with intelligence, humor and fury is the kind of thing that flummoxes the Bill O’Reilly’s of the world.

So, yeah, owning an equity stake in the cable channel you’re on, overseeing news operations and having your nightly show be the centerpiece of All That Is Current is not a bad little deal for Olbermann.

I’m not as convinced that it keeps him relevant, however. This may be an unintentional gift to his detractors at Fox News and anyone at MSNBC’s sinking ship brave enough to say they don’t need him.

Not every viewer that loved Olbermann on MSNBC is going to follow him to Current. As Conan O’Brien can tell anyone, it’s not the pre-show ink or the first-week ratings that matter. What matters is when normalcy returns and it’s just you, a show and viewers with unlimited options. Times are tougher then.

The biggest stumbling block is that MSNBC was almost always clustered on the dial with other 24-hour news channels. Finding it was easy on the analog channels or on the DirecTV news grouping. Current is on the digital platform, part of the reason – other than programming – that only roughly 23,000 people tuned in during primetime.  Olbermann could throw a bag of coins out of his window and hit that many people.

When you are available in 60 million homes and your primetime average is 23,000 viewers, you are not actually alive. You do not exist. Whatever light that comes through those 23,000 TV screens is from a distant, dead star. MSNBC is available in 95 million homes. But beyond numbers, the real issue is that people who like Olbermann like politics and news. They could find that on MSNBC and, when Olbermann wasn’t on the air, they could find it in Rachel Maddow or others desperately trying to be, in some way, like Olbermann.

In short, there were other things to watch you might like.

Yes, Current TV has a well-respected show called Vanguard and something else called infoMania. It’s not like you can’t stay connected to the narrative thread weaving through the issues of the day. But it’s also a repository for all kinds of things that just seem random. It’s a channel that’s big on interactive participation by the people who stumble upon it, but not exactly the most coherently branded channel you’ll ever see.

So what we have here is either Olbermann poised for the greatest comeback since Lazarus or one enormous cable renovation project that might need more hammers, drills and saws than the world has available.

Wouldn’t it have been easier to run for office and change the infuriating world of politics from the inside?

Email Tim Goodman at Tim.Goodman@THR.com

 

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