After less than a year on their air, Keith Olbermann has been shown the door at Current TV, with his revived version of Countdown, the nightly news skein he's hosted in some way, shape, or form for the past nine years, axed as of last night. The union between network and star that started so promisingly, with each singing the other's hosannahs (Olbermann even told David Letterman the gig was "manna from heaven"), is now reduced to tossing veiled epithets and legal threats at each other via dueling press releases. Whether this is the final nail in Olbermann's broadcast career is anyone's guess (probably not, I'm guessing), but I'll go out on a limb and say it is the end of the host's time as a visible part of the political pundit class.
Which may very well end up being for the best.
And I say that as someone who admires Olbermann quite a bit for what he's accomplished over the years, even with the noted difficulties that his colleagues have expressed with him, and his quite-obvious tendency toward blowhardiness. While at MSNBC, the passion, poise, and precision that he brought to his criticisms of the Iraq conflict and Bush Administration policies were a badly-needed salve for the way the media had been cowed in those initial post-9/11 years when any criticism of the president was tantamount to treason (how long ago that seems, no?). It was the power of his persona that expanded the audience for MSNBC, in turn allowing them to expanded their roster of pundits to what it is now. The spectrum of opinions out there is richer for that.
But, as with many things, sometimes the revolution is more important than the revolutionary. I'd love to say that this latest cancellation marks a big blow to my viewing habits, but in all honesty I'd stopped watching the Current Countdown within a few weeks of it premiering (though I kept it in my DVR rotation a bit longer before realizing I was just accumulating eps). Whether because of the generally chintzy feel of most Current productions (they still don't broadcast in HD -- I know, First World Problems, right?) or the fact that I'd simply evolved past the bombast that was Olbermann's signature style, the new show just never caught on with me. And clearly I wasn't alone, given the puny audience numbers it commanded -- a mere fraction of where he was at in his MSNBC prime.
With the fractious way he's parted from both Current (which practically laid out the red carpet and rejiggered its entire lineup in his image) and MSNBC (which has managed to soldier on just fine without him) -- both of which presented about as prime a platform for his political bent as he was ever likely to find -- as well as the trail of acrimonious job splits he's already left in his wake, an honest assessment of the evidence does make it start to seem like the fault may lie not so much in Keith's stars, but in himself. Out of curiosity, I went back into my own archives to see what I'd said when the new Countdown was first announced, and it's interesting to see where I was right and where I was off the mark. Of Olbermann joining Current, I said:
...one thing that's for certain is that it's fabulous news for Gore and his investors, who just saw their meager startup -- five years old with nary a ripple in the media pond -- instantly go from a trivia question to mainstream player that will likely see its nationwide coverage increase substantially as a result of this signing.Well, the jury's still out on how "fabulous" it ended up being, but I'd say the mere fact that the above didn't materialize is why Olbermann is on the outs. After all, the prima donna act only works when there are results that justify it. Obviously, that didn't happen, and here we are. Also in that earlier piece, I wondered if it was a smart move to trade down from MSNBC to Current. On that question, the answers are apparent. It might have made more sense in the longterm, whatever his problems were, to tough it out as part of the NBC News apparatus. For some more thoughts on this that echo my own to an eerie degree, read Mark Evanier's take on why the show may have failed, and what options Keith may have remaining open to him for his career's next act.