Ratings rise with Olbermann's anger

Broadcaster's commentaries, full of disgust and outrage, bring more viewers to MSNBC

December 03, 2006|By Matea Gold | Matea Gold,Los Angeles Times

SECAUCUS, N.J. -- The Democrats may have wrested back control of power in Congress, but that hasn't quieted the ire of Keith Olbermann.

Recently, he delivered one of his trademark blistering critiques of the country's leadership - this time charging that President Bush failed to learn the lessons of Vietnam by perpetuating the "monumental lie that is our presence in Iraq." And don't think the victors of the midterm election are going to escape his sharp tongue.

"If the Democrats don't undo a lot of the things that have been done, like the Military Commissions Act and many of the other infringements on freedom, as I see it, there will be a special comment with their name on it," Olbermann vowed on a recent afternoon, wearing a crisp, striped shirt and suspenders, his large frame hunched over his desk at MSNBC's Secaucus headquarters.

The 47-year-old broadcaster's "special comments" are not a regular feature on Countdown With Keith Olbermann, the dramatically intoned, fast-paced melange of politics and pop culture that he has anchored since 2003 and that recently emerged as the cable news network's top-rated show.

But Olbermann's occasional soliloquies - typically a no-holds-barred excoriation of the Bush administration - have dramatically elevated his profile in the last several months, especially in the liberal blogosphere, and helped drive up the ratings for the third-place cable news network.

The longtime sportscaster, who doesn't vote and eschews any political identity - "I may be a Whig, possibly a Free-Soiler," he quipped - has nevertheless become an unexpected folk hero for the frustrated left. One woman approached him in a New York restaurant recently and burst into tears as she thanked him.

"People just think, `He speaks for me,'" said Jane Hamsher, a Mill Valley, Calif., author who runs a liberal blog at firedog lake.com. "There was no resonance within the media for their perspective, and suddenly Keith came on the scene and gave voice to these long-simmering feelings of disgust with the war."

Olbermann said he never set out to court disaffected liberals.

"But there's a time when what you're covering ceases to look like news and begins to look like history," he said. "And you say, `Well, it doesn't matter how people might brand me or respond to this - I feel as if something very important is not being said.'"

Shift becomes ratings

It's perhaps a sign of the recent shift in the country's political mood that his message has translated into ratings.

Countdown's audience has grown by 21 percent this year compared with the same point last year, while its cable news competitors have lost viewers at that hour, according to Nielsen Media Research.

With an average nightly viewership of 464,000, Olbermann lags far behind Fox News' Bill O'Reilly, whose audience has averaged nearly 2.15 million viewers this year. But the MSNBC host is creeping up on second-place CNN. In October, Countdown edged out Paula Zahn Now by 11,000 viewers.

His gains come as all of MSNBC's ratings are on an upswing, a fact that has triggered no small amount of jubilation at the perpetually last-place network.

"MSNBC is now a player in the competitive world of cable news in a way that we have not been for many, many years, and that's a really big deal," said General Manager Dan Abrams, the network's one-time legal-affairs anchor who was tapped to run the channel in June.

Abrams said MSNBC is finally finding its identity, and he credits Olbermann with a large share of the network's recent success - so much so that he paired the longtime ESPN host with Chris Matthews to anchor the network's election-night coverage.

MSNBC more than doubled its viewership compared with the 2002 midterms. And its share of the cable news audience in prime time also increased, from 15 percent four years ago to 25 percent this year.

Olbermann is negotiating a new contract with MSNBC; his current one expires in March.

"It is, to some degree, a perfect setup," he said of his relationship with the network. "They leave me alone, I leave them alone, and I deliver what they need, both in terms of journalism and the money end of it, the ratings."

As his profile has risen, so has criticism of his provocative style. This summer, amid an on-air feud with O'Reilly, he addressed a gathering of television critics by donning a mask of the Fox News host and giving a Nazi salute.

A network spokesman said the gesture was intended as a satirical comment.

Robert Cox, who runs Olbermann Watch, a critical blog that monitors the cable news host's comments, said that Olbermann employs some of the same tactics that he decries.

"I think at the end of the day he has, by and large, become that which he has criticized - a demagogue like Bill O'Reilly," said Cox, a management consultant in New Rochelle, N.Y.

Urge to speak out

Olbermann rejects the comparison.

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