Counting Down on MSNBC's Keith Olbermann

Keith Olbermann i i

hide captionNot by the numbers: Keith Olbermann isn't your ordinary news anchor.

Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images
Keith Olbermann

Not by the numbers: Keith Olbermann isn't your ordinary news anchor.

Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images

Each night on MSNBC's Countdown, anchor Keith Olbermann presents the world's news as a series of bullet points.

As an experiment in form, we thought we'd profile Olbermann in the same fashion.

So here's a countdown of things you should know about one of cable's most talked-about talkers — and one of TV's most prominent critics of the Bush administration.

No. 5 on the Countdown: Unabashed, Unashamed, Liberal

In Olbermann's view, waterboarding is unquestionably torture, and Vice President Dick Cheney is about two millimeters shy of pure evil. In an interview at his new digs at Rockfeller Center, where MSNBC has joined the rest of NBC News, Olbermann expands on why he feels compelled to speak out about such things on the air.

"We gave these people every benefit of the doubt," Olbermann says. "Our naturally contentious political arrangement in this country was silenced for well over a year after 9/11. We got hosed. We were manipulated. That trust that we put in these people, they did not deserve."

Countdown started on March 31, 2003, right after the invasion of Iraq. CBS News senior correspondent Jeff Greenfield has covered politics and media for years, and he briefly overlapped with Olbermann when both worked at CNN. Greenfield says that as the war soured, Olbermann found his voice — and a following.

"By becoming a full-throated, unapologetic opponent of all things Bushian ... he served a market that wasn't being served," Greenfield says.

Olbermann built that market in much the way Fox News built up its audience, Greenfield notes — by appealing to conservatives who felt the mainstream media overlooked their concerns. But he notes that both MSNBC and Fox need play only to niche audiences; neither channel draws the same crowds their broadcast peers do.

No. 4 on the Countdown: That Bill O'Reilly Thing

Olbermann is locked into a death match with Fox's Bill O'Reilly on the air, provoking his rival whenever he can.

Here's how Olbermann played on a spat between producer Mark Cuban and O'Reilly on a recent show:

"As usual, Bill-O's King Lear act, in which he threatens somebody with terrible consequences and boycotts and plagues of locusts, has produced nothing tangible other than making the object of his impotent rage richer."

Off the air, Olbermann says it's just fun to get a rise out of a guy who draws three times the audience he does.

"You punch upward, not down," Olbermann says. "If I'm Bill O'Reilly, and Keith Olbermann attacks me or criticizes me, or analyzes what I'm saying, my reaction is 'Who?' [But] his reaction is ka-boom! And I have just been the beneficiary of that."

Olbermann's show has been cheering strong ratings gains this October compared with last. But The O'Reilly Factor, which runs in the same 8 p.m. weeknight slot, remains the top-rated show in cable news, with an average audience of about 2.5 million people each night. What's more, Fox News has argued that Olbermann's ratings are tapering off.

O'Reilly now avoids mentioning Olbermann by name on the air. He dismisses Olbermann on his radio show as "MSNBC's smear guy, doing nothing," saying that even "reasonable" liberals will stop watching.

Fox News, similarly, declined to comment on the record for this story.

No. 3 on the Countdown: Attitude Is Everything

Olbermann says he learned everything he knows about the business by doing local sports, where he was allowed to telegraph his irreverence for what he was reporting on.

"Here's the news; here's how stupid the news is," Olbermann says. "These parallel tracks have been sort of the summation of my career."

Olbermann was one of the key figures behind the success of ESPN's SportsCenter, where he uttered this memorable line: "That's a 6 to 4 to 3 double play if you're scoring at home — or even if you're alone."

No. 2 on the Countdown: Brand Loyalty

Olbermann's success doesn't mean that MSNBC is banking left. Officials there swear it. MSNBC Senior Vice President Phil Griffin has known Olbermann for more than two decades and says he's betting on his host's personality and sensibility, not his beliefs. It's a question of branding, he says.

"Keith Olbermann is our brand; Chris Matthews is our brand," Griffin says. "These are smart, well-informed people who have a real sense of history and can put things in context."

Clearly, though, the brand is evolving. Conservative Joe Scarborough is being moved to the morning to replace Don Imus. MSNBC opened talks — since aborted — with outspoken liberal comic Rosie O'Donnell. But what about MSNBC's other conservative talk-show host, Tucker Carlson? Is he part of that same brand?

"He is right now," Griffin says.

No. 1 on the Countdown: After the Election, What?

I'm bending the rules to put this in the form of a question: Can Olbermann's anti-Bush schtick survive past the Bush administration? After all, he signs off each night with an updated version of this gibe at the president: "That is Countdown for this, the 1,658th day since the declaration of 'Mission Accomplished' in Iraq."

CBS's Greenfield, himself a veteran of the cable wars, says Olbermann will endure.

"Did Rush Limbaugh and Bill O'Reilly survive the departure of Clinton?" Greenfield asks, with a knowing laugh. "Once you build that kind of loyalty from an audience, they'll stick around."

And as we talk back in his office, Olbermann starts gathering steam as he considers the challenge ahead.

"Hey, you know what? I don't care if you're a Democrat or a Republican," Olbermann says. "This isn't right — you're not doing what you said you were going to do. You have not restored habeas corpus fully. We're still in Gitmo. We're still in Iraq. We're not out fast enough. These are still going to be issues. They don't go away with George Bush."

And that is the Olbermann Countdown — for this, the 347th day before the presidential election that will determine Olbermann's next obsession.

Other than Bill O'Reilly, of course.

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