Keith Olbermann was already a renowned sportscaster when he rose to prominence as a political commentator. This was during the Bush Administration, when the left was badly in need of a forceful voice to rally around. Such was his popularity that MSNBC reoriented its entire primetime lineup around it.But now the Democrats control Congress and the White House, and there are creeping indications that the world may not have quite as much need of -- or patience for -- Olbermann and his shtick as it once did.
Ratings for Olbermann's Countdown have been soft recently, and the 8 p.m. shows on CNN and HLN have narrowed the gap. In the important demographic of adults 25 to 54 -- the group advertisers are looking to reach -- Countdown was down 44% year-over-year in January. It averaged 268,000 viewers in that demo, only 3,000 more than Nancy Grace's show on HLN, and 12,000 more than CNN's Campbell Brown. Fox News's O'Reilly Factor dominated the hour with 964,000 viewers age 25 to 54, and was the only cable news show in the time period to increase its audience, by 55%.
But there are also more subjective signs that Olbermann's stridency and lack of proportion are alienating some of his natural allies. Quite a few eyebrows elevated last week when Jon Stewart, in a parody of one of Olbermann's "Special Comment" segments, called out the newsman for going way over the top in his denunciations of Republican Senator-elect Scott Brown of Massachusetts. The criticism was all the more remarkable, given that Stewart and Olbermann usually take the same side on most issues, especially when it comes to Fox News and the Republicans.
Olbermann's overheated rhetoric also drew a sharp response from Joe Scarborough, MSNBC's house conservative, who called his fellow host's attack on Brown "reckless" and "sad." The exchange (and a few earlier, similar incidents) inspired network president Phil Griffin to issue a stern memo admonishing his charges: "We do not publicly criticize our colleagues. This kind of behavior is unprofessional and will not be tolerated."
Griffin, not surprisingly, says he doesn't believe Olbermann's recent hiccups are part of any larger trend. "Keith has been our tentpole," he says. "I watch the show every night. It's a great show. It's as smart and clever and fun as any out there, and I'm pleased with where we are."
He attributes Olbermann's January ratings slip to a news cycle in which international news, rather than domestic politics, was the No. 1 story. "On big, breaking international news, CNN tends to do better than us. They did a great job in Haiti, and I tip my hat to them," he says. "We're the place for politics, and there are times when politics does great, and there are times when it doesn't." With primaries in the midterm elections already looming, he says, "I think we'll get our momentum back."
As for the flank attack by Stewart, Griffin points out that Olbermann took the comedian's criticism to heart and acknowledged that he had gone overboard in demonizing Brown. "I thought Keith handled that very well," he says. "That's something to be commended, not just piled on."
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