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Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Crazy Keith Olbermann

Chester Higgins Jr./The New York Times
Keith Olbermann, in his office: “You don’t punch down.
If you’re in my position, you punch upwards.”

MSNBC’s Star Carves Anti-Fox Niche

Published: July 11, 2006

He is either the leading man of MSNBC or its leading agent provocateur, but Keith Olbermann has no problem embracing either role.

“You can’t spell momentum without Olbermann — or something like that,” he said in a telephone interview, with a typical sprinkle of wry in his voice.

The momentum reference related to MSNBC’s recent aggressive positioning of the program “Countdown With Keith Olbermann” as the centerpiece of this all-news cable network’s latest effort to become more competitive with Fox News Channel and CNN.

MSNBC revamped its prime-time schedule two weeks ago, shelving many of its prime-time hosts in favor of documentary-style programs but retaining “Countdown,” a program the network cites as its great growth story.

That growth, while coming from a base that Fox News would find disastrously puny, is demonstrable, especially among the group that is chiefly sold to news advertisers: people between the ages of 25 and 54. For the last quarter, Mr. Olbermann, who is 47, has seen his ratings in that group grow by more than 30 percent.

The growth has not been unfailingly steady, as competitors at Fox and CNN pointed out. They noted that Mr. Olbermann did better in February and March than he has since. Still, for the year, Mr. Olbermann has managed to climb past CNN into second place in the news channel competition at 8 p.m. among that 25-to-54 group. That qualifies as a feat for MSNBC, though Mr. Olbermann’s show remains little more than a dot in the rearview mirror of Fox News.

Even from that far back, he seems to have been able to honk his horn loud enough to raise hackles at Fox, which, Mr. Olbermann enthusiastically acknowledges, has been his precise intention as well as a useful marketing strategy.

He was especially able to redden the neck of the time period’s king, Bill O’Reilly, starting this winter, when the two men engaged in a widely discussed barb-filled feud.

Mr. Olbermann began frequently naming Mr. O’Reilly as the winner in a segment he calls “The Worst Person in the World,” tweaking cable news’s most popular host for such excesses (according to Mr. Olbermann) as his declaration last year (in jest, Mr. O’Reilly said) that a resolution passed in San Francisco to ban military recruitment in schools was so un-American that he was inviting Al Qaeda to blow up Coit Tower.

The worst-person citations eventually riled Mr. O’Reilly enough that he began a petition drive directed at Mr. Olbermann (though he did not mention him by name; he has apparently never mentioned Mr. Olbermann’s name), suggesting that he be replaced by a long-ago MSNBC host, Phil Donahue. Mr. Donahue’s ratings, Mr. O’Reilly said in February, eclipsed anything MSNBC had achieved since. By the next day, Mr. Olbermann was celebrating the petition and offering to sign it himself. Now he gleefully notes that Mr. O’Reilly (whose name he has no trouble uttering) only helped his cause by taking the bait and responding to the gibes.

“You don’t punch down,” Mr. Olbermann said. “If you’re in my position,” he added, referring to his initially microscopic ratings next to Mr. O’Reilly’s, “you punch upwards.”

Every time Mr. O’Reilly took umbrage at the slams, it seemed to add a bounce to Mr. Olbermann’s ratings — one reason, perhaps, that Mr. O’Reilly’s reactions seem to have tailed off more recently. Nobody at Fox News wants Mr. Olbermann to get any more of a draft from Mr. O’Reilly’s popularity.

Mr. Olbermann thinks he knows one reason behind his gains. He believes that Mr. O’Reilly’s audience, which is still huge, is aging. He noted that Mr. O’Reilly’s total viewer ratings are basically flat, while his numbers in the younger audience group have been dropping — down about 15 percent for the last quarter. “There is no other conclusion to draw than he is not adding younger viewers,” Mr. Olbermann said.

Of course, in terms of numbers of viewers in that younger age group, Mr. O’Reilly is still playing in another league, with about three times as many as Mr. Olbermann. But that does represent a small slice of the total audience for Mr. O’Reilly.

MSNBC’s research claims that the median age for Mr. O’Reilly’s audience is 71, while Mr. Olbermann’s is 59. (Fox and CNN both report that the only figures they get for median age of shows with older audiences is “65 plus,” and that Mr. O’Reilly’s audience falls into that category.)

The age discrepancy has led Mr. Olbermann to dish out even more mockery in his attacks. “It’s slipping away from you,” he said, addressing Mr. O’Reilly on a “Countdown” segment last month. “You don’t know what to do. You can’t even lie well any more. Seriously: I understand. It’s called panic.” He added, “You begin to see the audience dying off, and the creases deepening in your forehead.”

Lately Mr. O’Reilly has resisted giving Mr. Olbermann the satisfaction of more attention. Mr. O’Reilly was on vacation last week, so Fox responded through Irina Briganti, the spokeswoman for the channel. Her comments, matched with Mr. Olbermann’s biting remarks, reflected how corrosive the byplay has become.

“Because of his personal demons, Keith has imploded everywhere he’s worked,” Ms. Briganti said. “From lashing out at co-workers to personally attacking Bill O’Reilly and all things Fox, it’s obvious Keith is a train wreck waiting to happen. And like all train wrecks, people might tune in out of morbid curiosity, but they eventually tune out, as evidenced by Keith’s recent ratings decline. In the meantime, we hope he enjoys his paranoid view from the bottom of the ratings ladder and wish him well on his inevitable trip to oblivion.”

The references to personal demons and implosions touched on Mr. Olbermann’s résumé, which includes an array of positions over the last decade. At times he has been in public disputes with employers. More recently he landed in gossip columns after some nasty e-mail messages he sent were published. In one, he mocked the intelligence of the MSNBC host Rita Cosby; in others, he used vituperative language in responding to e-mail critics.

Uh, a person from Fox talked about Olbermann's personal demons? As far as I know, Mr. Olbermann doesn't attack producers or demand sex from them. He doesn't call Fox security on callers to his radio show.

He has not cost NBC milions of dollars for his behavior.

If Keith is a trainwreck, O'Reilly is a loaded jetliner flown by a blind pilot in the mounatins

posted by Steve @ 12:07:00 AM

12:07:00 AM

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