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Keith Olbermann’s Critics Smell Blood in the Water

A couple of weeks ago, I asked the burning question “Is Keith Olbermann Losing it?” While I was concerned more with the Countdown host’s loosening perspective, several media critics have since wondered if the show’s ratings portend its imminent demise. As the LA Times’ Andrew Malcolm puts it, are we counting down the last days of Countdown? More importantly, can Countdown be saved? Yup and here’s how.

Malcolm notes that Countdown’s 25-54 year-old audience demo ratings have shrunk 44% since the President’s term began, and points to a January demo loss to Nancy Grace. I’ll get to the ratings in a minute, but Malcolm also points out this cause for concern:

Worst, Olbermann’s network president, Phil Griffin, is publicly praising him, always an ominous sign in television. While referring to his host almost in the past tense. “Keith has been our tentpole,” Griffin says, adding later, “I’m pleased with where we are.”

While Malcolm’s status as a past Worst Person goes unmentioned here, he makes some solid points about Countdown’s tea leaves. On the other hand, while he points out Keith’s dust-up with Joe Scarborough, he neglects to mention that it was Scarborough, not Olbermann, who faced rebuke by the network. Olbermann was clearly in the driver’s seat there.

Now, about those ratings. TV by the numbers put Countdown in 3rd place, behind HLN’s Nancy Grace, in demo viewers in January, while Daily Finance had him with a narrow lead over Grace. All of this led Keith to address the ratings issue in his Worst Persons segment Tuesday:




See what he did there?

This is the thing about ratings. We get press releases from the networks all the time, and they all manage to pull out a silver lining somehow. Since the demo story isn’t so rosy for Keith, he went with “total viewers.”

Another problem, however, is embedded in that clip in the form of the swipe he takes at Daily Finance, which drew a sharp rebuke. The numbers by themselves are not that alarming, but when coupled with his recent game of chicken with Jon Stewart, along with the ascent of lead-out Rachel Maddow as the new face of the cable news left, there is reason for concern.

Olbermann rose to prominence by serving an underserved audience, but that’s not the case anymore. In order to recapture his past glory, Keith needs to focus on putting on a good show, not pandering to a now-diffuse audience. That audience might have shown up for the politics, but they stayed because Keith’s show was funny, smart, and had an appealing format.

Keith acknowledged to Jon Stewart that he might need to lighten up a little. He should also consider freshening up the show’s format. As it stands, it relies too heavily on talking head segments in which the heads always agree with Keith. They need to shorten those, and throw in an even-tempered conservative or two. Ed Morrissey and Matt Lewis come to mind.

Recently, Countdown did away with the “Best Persons” segment, and added the “Quick Comments.” I would reverse that calculus, and throw in two  more branded segments to replace the “quick comments.”

Finally, I think the show needs to focus more on media criticism, and less on partisan politics. He’s already sandwiched by shows that do that better. Keith has a deeply evident love of journalism, and his show’s format works better when it’s providing clarity, rather than just amplifying what Ed Schultz and Rachel Maddow are talking about.

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