RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
Keith Olbermann has found success on MSNBC as a prominent critic of the Bush presidency, which has led to questions about whether that cable news network is trying to lean left in hopes of winning more viewers.
NPR's David Folkenflik went to Rockefeller Center to find out more.
DAVID FOLKENFLIK: On MSNBC's "Countdown," anchor Keith Olbermann presents the world's news each night in bullet points.
(Soundbite of TV show, "Countdown")
Mr. KEITH OLBERMANN (Host): In our fifth story n the countdown - our fourth story tonight - our third story in the countdown...
FOLKENFLIK: So let's give Olbermann the countdown treatment.
Number five on the countdown of things you should know about Olbermann: unabashed, unashamed, liberal.
In Keith Olbermann's worldview, waterboarding is an unquestionably torture, and Vice President Dick Cheney is about two millimeters shy of purest evil.
Mr. OLBERMANN: We gave these people every benefit of the doubt possible. Our naturally contentious political arrangement in this country was silenced for well over a year after 9/11.
FOLKENFLIK: We're talking in his office a few hours before he goes to air and gets truly wound up.
Mr. OLBERMANN: We got hosed. We were manipulated. That trust that we put in these people they did not deserve.
FOLKENFLIK: "Countdown" started on March 31st, 2003, amid the invasion of Iraq. CBS News senior correspondent Jeff Greenfield has covered politics and media for years. He says as the war soured, Olbermann found his voice and a following.
Mr. JEFF GREENFIELD (CBS News): By becoming a full-throated, unapologetic opponent of all things Bushian, he served a market that wasn't being served.
FOLKENFLIK: Greenfield says it's much the way FOX News built up its audience by appealing to conservatives who felt the mainstream media overlooked their concerns.
Number four on the countdown: Olbermann's locked in to a death match with FOX's Bill O'Reilly on the air.
(Soundbite of TV show, "Countdown")
Mr. OLBERMANN: And 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.
FOLKENFLIK: Off the air, Olbermann explains why he takes such delight in getting a rise out of a guy who draws three times the audience he does.
Mr. OLBERMANN: You punch upwards, not down. If I'm Bill O'Reilly, and Keith Olbermann attacks me or criticizes me or analyzes what I'm saying, my reaction is, who? His reaction is - ka-boom! And I have just been the beneficiary of that.
FOLKENFLIK: Olbermann's show has been cheering(ph) strong ratings gains this October against a year ago, but "The O'Reilly Factor" remains the top-rated cable news show, with an average audience of about 2.5 million people each night. What's more, FOX News argues Olbermann's ratings are tapering off. O'Reilly now avoids mentioning Olbermann by name on the air; he dismisses him this way on his radio show.
(Soundbite of "The Radio Factor")
Mr. BILL O'REILLY (Host): MSNBC's smear guy doing nothing.
FOLKENFLIK: And FOX News likewise declined to comment on the record for this story.
Now onto number three on the countdown: Everything Olbermann knows about the business he learned doing local sports, where he was allowed to telegraph his irreverence for what he was reporting on.
Mr. OLBERMANN: Here it is. Here's the news. Here's how stupid the news is. These parallel tracks have been sort of the summation of my career.
FOLKENFLIK: Olbermann was one of the key figures behind the success of ESPN's "SportsCenter," where he uttered the memorable line: That's a six to 43(ph) double play, if you're scoring at home, or even if you're alone.
Number two on the countdown: Olbermann's success doesn't mean that MSNBC is banking left. The channel's officials swear they're betting on his personality, not his beliefs.
Phil Griffin is the senior vice president at MSNBC.
Mr. PHIL GRIFFIN (Senior Vice President, MSNBC): People say what is our brand? I'll tell you what our brand is: Keith Olbermann is our brand; Chris Matthews is our brand. These are smart, well-informed people who have a real sense of history and can put things in context.
FOLKENFLIK: Clearly, the brand is evolving. Conservative Joe Scarborough is being moved to the morning to replace Don Imus; MSNBC opened unsuccessful talks with outspoken liberal comic Rosie O'Donnell; and as for MSNBC's other conservative talk show host, Tucker Carlson?
Is Tucker part of that brand?
Mr. GRIFFIN: He is right now.
FOLKENFLIK: In the number one story on the countdown: Well, let's bend the rules and put this in the form of a question. Can Olbermann's anti-Bush shtick survive past the Bush administration? After all, he ends his shows by saying...
Mr. OLBERMANN: That is "Countdown" for this - the 1,658th day since the declaration of mission accomplished in Iraq.
FOLKENFLIK: CBS's Jeff Greenfield, himself a veteran of the cable wars, says Olbermann will endure.
Mr. GREENFIELD: Did Rush Limbaugh and Bill O'Reilly survive the departure of Clinton? Once you build that kind of loyalty from an audience, they'll stick around.
FOLKENFLIK: And as we talk back in his office, Olbermann starts gathering steam as he considers the challenge ahead.
Mr. OLBERMANN: Hey, you know what? I don't care if you're a Democrat or a Republican. This isn't right. You're not doing what you said you were going to do. You have not restored habeas corpus fully. We still have 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.
FOLKENFLIK: 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.
David Folkenflik, NPR News, New York.
MONTAGNE: Want to hear more of what Keith Olbermann has to say? You can go to npr.org.