Keith Olbermann’s debut last night on Al Gore’s Current TV was met with mixed reviews.
Mr. Olbermann, who has a colorful history of fighting with bosses and getting fired, is famously mercurial and thin-skinned. (Full disclosure: this critic was named “Worst Person in the World” at least once by Mr. Olbermann when he was on MSNBC.)
Even on the air, he looks as if at any minute he could lose his anchorman cool — a little like Jack Paar, who was famous for tearing up and sometimes walking out in the early days of the “The Tonight Show.” Mr. Olbermann’s disputes with management were public and vociferous. He was suspended by MSNBC, a unit of NBC Universal, last November after giving money to three Democratic politicians. Current TV said that there is no problem there with political donations.
And he took every opportunity to bash corporate greed, summing up Monday’s Supreme Court decision in favor of Wal-Mart this way: “The more employees you screw one way or the other, the more likely you are to get away with it, I guess.” John Dean, the former Watergate defendant, beamed at the host. “Nicely put,” he told Mr. Olbermann.
Viewers can be more fickle, as Conan O’Brien, now barely visible now that he is at TBS, can attest. But Mr. Olbermann tried to give his audience a stake in his survival by linking it to the fate of democracy. “Thank you for helping us preserve the freedom of the news,” he said.
The biggest differences with the MSNBC version of Countdown were cosmetic. The production level at Current is decidedly a step down, and even though the show itself was largely unchanged, the generic New York backdrop and the graphics had a 1980s-local-newscast look to them; the sound mix was erratic on the first night too, a hitch that hopefully can be improved with practice.
In keeping with the familiar part of the night and name, the new “Countdown With Keith Olbermann” felt very much like the old one–albeit with fewer corporate feathers to ruffle overhead, and, more than likely, fewer viewers.
Olbermann revived several staples from his MSNBC show, including “Special Comment”–the extended opinion offering, which tonight featured Olbermann criticizing the Obama administration’s handling of the war in Libya. He also has preserved the popular “Worst Person in the World” segment; tonight he awarded the bronze third-place title to Sarah Palin; the silver to Fox News’ Chris Wallace for selectively editing out network VP Bill Sammon’s name from his heated interview with Jon Stewart on “Fox News Sunday”; and gold to that “educated,” obnoxious woman on a Metro North train who used a defense of social status to claim she shouldn’t be silenced for loud and profane cell phone usage. Several viewers complained that the volume of the familiar organ music used in the segment drowned out the outlandish things the “Worst People” were quoted as saying. But Olbermann followers should probably have expected a certain amped-up approach to production values in the new venue.
Without the news apparatus of mean, Moulitsas-blocking NBC behind him, he has little news to break. That leaves him to either hold pleasant-enough but not very groundbreaking discussions with Moore and other guests, or engage in self-righteous puffery like the Scarborough baiting and ridiculous Civil War analogy.
Since his new deal with Current also makes him the network’s head news honcho, Olbermann may want to get some of his troops – sorry about the war analogy – out into the field to bring back some fresh information for his show. And not just about the drug underground that Current covers so well.
Until he can break up the routine with some reporting, he’ll be forced to find a middle ground between boring and pompous commentary.
Not exactly a ringing endorsement for a program that has been in the works for nearly five months and whose host is no rookie on the airwaves.
The critics and the viewers were probably expecting something new and innovative, but received Countdown redux instead.
Based on last night’s program there is still plenty of animus towards MSNBC flowing in Olbermann’s veins and he will probably keep taking potshots at his former employer until he runs out of angles with which to do so.
But his biggest snipe at MSNBC may be the shows length which will run past the 9 p.m. hour and bleed into Rachel Maddow’s time slot. There were complaints about the move last night on Twitter from viewers who couldn’t decide which liberal to give their loyalty to for the few overlapping moments Of Countdown and Maddow.
The extension into the next hour is also a trick used by American Idol and other programs to juice the ratings of the program that follows it, which may have been a smart move since the program was sandwiched in between two riveting documentaries, “The OxyContin Express” and “Gateway to Heroin.”
The ratings for the first night should be available tomorrow and the question will be whether or not Olbermann will be able to take a bite out of MSNBC and earn his enormous paycheck or will he just sink into oblivion as another liberal has-been?