Lawrence O'Donnell has a simple explanation for why he's taking over the 10 p.m. time slot on MSNBC Monday.
"I got very high ratings when I sat in Keith Olbermann's chair," said O'Donnell, a former producer on NBC's The West Wing who also happens to have been the first guest in the first hour when the cable channel debuted 14 years ago.
"When a guest comes in and holds the rating of the highest rated show on a network, the people running the network go 'What's his name and what's he doing next week?' " he said, laughing. "The dark truth of every single product on television is that it's chasing ratings."
O'Donnell's new show, The Last Word, replaces reruns of Olbermann's show Countdown as MSNBC refines how it pursues viewers in prime time, amid rumors of new anchors coming in midday. These changes will bolster a strategy developed around the channel's signature stars, Keith Olbermann and Rachel Maddow, that consistently beats rival CNN in prime-time ratings.
"Keith found his own way … nobody at the network guided him to it," said O'Donnell, who will feature Vice President Joe Biden on his first show Monday. "The audience has voted. They've said, in prime time we want political opinion television. That's why they're not watching what they used to and why they are watching Keith."
For those of us who have been tracking this stuff a while, it's hard to imagine MSNBC in this place.
Back in 2003, it was pushing liberal lion Phil Donahue out the door while handing shows to conspiracy theorists like Jesse Ventura and Michael Savage, along with trying to turn moderate conservative Joe Scarborough into a younger, flag-waving carbon copy of Fox News Channel star Bill O'Reilly. The only constant: Executives seemed to have no clue how to combat right-leaning Fox News and reporter-focused CNN after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
Now Scarborough leads a Beltway-focused salon on Morning Joe and Fox expatriate Olbermann is pioneering a particular strain of lefty-leaning progressive commentary — a pragmatic style exemplified by old politicos like Hardball host Chris Matthews and O'Donnell, a former aide to now-deceased U.S. Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (don't believe the hype about these guys being radical leftists; in reality, they're often to the left of our centrist Democratic president and to the right of liberal voices such as Democracy Now's Amy Goodman).
"The difference between us now and in the past, and us and some of our competitors, (is) taking people who are untested and trying to put them on," said Phil Griffin, MSNBC president, in a not-so-subtle reference to CNN putting disgraced former New York governor Elliot Spitzer and newspaper columnist Kathleen Parker in an 8 p.m. show, starting Oct. 4. "There's no question we have a progressive liberal voice in prime time, but we don't have talking points. If you have talking points, you may ignore the facts to push (them)."
Jeff Cohen, former executive producer of Donahue's show, said he told MSNBC executives in 2002 liberal stands would be a popular alternative to conservative-skewing Fox News. Instead, they claimed Donahue's opposition to the Iraq war made him sound "un-American" and canceled the show, Cohen said.
"They did (liberal opinion) years too late, after the lack of good journalism led us into war," said Cohen, who now teaches journalism at Ithaca College in New York. "They punished those of us who tried to ask good questions and years later, when the political winds have changed … Olbermann has almost stumbled into it."
Full disclosure: I appeared on the Countdown show when O'Donnell was guest hosting in July, discussing the case of wrongly fired USDA employee Shirley Sherrod in a San Diego studio. We both were attending the National Association of Black Journalists' convention.
Back then, O'Donnell was wry and relatively loose, excitedly describing how he might turn an overseas aid trip into a feature for the show and pointedly opposing the notion opinionated cable news channels are wrecking the public's ideas of what facts are, encasing them in silos of media echoing what they already believe.
"I feel sorry for the people at CNN who have to fake their way through an hour pretending they don't vote and don't have political opinions," he said, referencing the rival channel's nonpartisan approach. "It's become so unrealistic and, in its very peculiar way, condescending to the audience."