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Keith Olbermann's MSNBC legacy: Proving funny + news + liberalism = ratings



450-tv_olbermann.sff_.embedded.prod_affiliate.56.jpgAs you might expect, Keith Olbermann's abrupt departure from MSNBC Friday night brought a wave of speculation; I'll be sorting through some of it this morning on the Tom Joyner Morning Show with CNN and TV One personality Roland Martin.

What seems obvious, amid the fevered efforts of many top media reporters, is that this was a mutual decision, negotiated over time, between Olbermann and his bosses at MSNBC. He's famously clashed with just about every TV organization that hired him, and the stories of his prickliness at MSNBC have become legend (the big one: employees there were not allowed to speak with him directly, only to leave notes in his office mailbox).

Conspiracy theories about meddling by newly approved majority owner Comcast also abound, but logic argues their denials of involvement seem genuine. Regardless of the company's philosophy, thy want to make money and maintain market dominance -- it would make no sense for them to start a tenure running NBC by decapitating the cable channel's biggest star. The morel ike scenario seems that Olbermann and MSNBC decided to make their split final before the new overlords had to get involved at all.

I do think many writing about Olbermann's departure forget his biggest legacy at MSNBC, perhaps even bigger than introducing the channels current stars Lawrence O'Donnell and Rachel Maddow to his audience: Proving that cutting humor plus newsy content can equal big ratings in cable TV.

Before Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert turned Comedy Central into a widely-acclaimed haven for sidesplitting truth telling, Olbermann crafted Countdown in 2003 as a wry, satirical take on the day's headlines, disguised as a madcap look through the top news of the day. This was before he would debut the Special Comment segments that would crystallize so much of what worked and didn't about his approach.

In those days, Olbermann had a lighter touch and seemed aware of how much his past battles had cost him. Even now, he seems a uniquely tortured personality, capable of brilliant broadcasting and awfully petty action, sometime in the same breath. But his early success with a lighter, anti-Fox Countdown gave MSNBC the breathing room it needed to make a turn towards an alternative.

olbermann.jpgIn September 2006, Olbermann debuted his first Special Comment segment denouncing then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumfeld for what the anchor felt was comparing political opponents to those who enabled Adolf Hitler's rise to power. It was an impressive display, channeling the umbrage and anti-Bush sentiments which would later become his signature. I compared him to Edward R. Murrow back then, and he would steadily transform himself into a cable TV news echo of that legendary TV journalism hero.

But his truth-telling would later curdle into occasional bouts of pomposity and his backstage conflicts with his bosses -- culminating in a fight over his unauthorized donations to Democratic candidates -- would prove too damaging. Now reports say Olbermann is pocketing as much as $7-million to step away, promising to stay off television for anywhere from 4.5 months (according to TMZ) to a year (according to the Los Angeles Times.) and agreeing not to discuss his departure.

Industry insider expect Olbermann to land somewhere, but given that he's had stormy tenures everywhere from ESPN to CNN, Fox Sports Net and two turns at MSNBC, it's hard to know where he could work next (Wonder if incoming Comcast executives are happy with NBC's recent history of paying talent like Olbermann and O'Brien to go away?)

My prediction: Both MSNBC and Olbermann will suffer without each other. Olbermann defined MSNBC's brand as smart, sharp, pro-Democratic commentary at a time when a good-sized niche of cable viewers yearned for that voice. And MSNBC gave Olbermann the one place that world tolerate his peculiarities longer than any other; it speak volumes that, despite his uncanny talent of creating memorable TV franchises, employers are finally willing to pay millions to see him leave.

I also wonder about another question: With one less anchor at MSNBC, the cable channel has another opportunity to diversify cable's prime time anchor lineup. Ex-Nightline co-host Martin Bashir has been mostly invisible since his hiring by MSNBC last year and sometime Today fill-in newsreader Tamron Hall remains the channel's highest-visibility anchor of color.

Would be nice to see one good moment come of NBC's latest talent departure debacle.

[Last modified: Thursday, January 27, 2011 5:10pm]


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