December 16, 2017

Olbermann and Bey

I was a guest on “Countdown” a number of years ago and Keith Olbermann was the host. Olbermann was gracious in his introduction, referencing that we had been co-workers for awhile on theABC Network Radio. I was on the show discussing the deceptions and manipulations of television, principally as they were executed in the lead up to the war in Iraq.

I doubt that he recalled that prior to our ABC connection we were also neighbors in the same condo building on West 57th street, sharing the elevator and even the sundeck on occasion. It would be difficult not to notice him. He was a tall man with an ideally proportioned physique, chiseled features and a square jaw as sharp as a letter opener. Outwardly he appeared almost impossibly perfect in real life, like a comic book hero, a Clark Kent or the cinematic equivalent of one, Christopher Reeves. At those more informal occasions he seemed aloof and unapproachable, but that might have been his personal reaction to the attentions of celebrity. I’d felt similarly the first half-dozen times I ran into Al Pacino who also lived in the building. Then one day he actually looked into my face and transformed into the most friendly and engaging of personages.

During the lead up to the Iraq War media pundits who told the truth and disputed media/government assertions were fired and silenced. Phil Donahue, a host on MSNBC was one of them. An internal NBC memo explained Phil Donahue’s firing: “Donahue was a difficult public face for NBC in a time of war” and his show would be “a home for the liberal anti-war agenda at the same time that our competitors are waving the flag at every opportunity.” Lynn Samuels, Rev. Byron Schaefer, Roxanne Walker and Charles Goyette were anti-war radio hosts fired because of their views. I believe I was also one of that group at WABC radio.

And then came ‘Countdown’ and Olbermann.

At first the show was cautious, undistinguished and undistinguishable from other cable talking head shows, but by mid-2006 Olbermann began his ‘special comments’ segment blasting administration figures and it was clear the tide was beginning to turn. His show was a beach head. It offered hope that the days of Dixie Chick demonization were finally over. It was again possible for Americans to criticize their government without being called ‘traitors’, ‘friends of Saddam’ or ‘enablers of terrorists’.

Soon the entire network would follow his progressive on-air lead. Even Chris Mathews who had gushed over George Bush in his flight suit and exclaimed “We are all neo-cons now!” began to drop in line behind Olbermann’s ideological lead. Matthews began asserting that he was always against the war, adopted his own ‘special comments-type segment and unabashedly steered his on air presentation towards the North Star of Liberalism.

Before Phil Donahue was fired at MSNBC Chris Matthews let it be known that he wanted Donahue off the air. At the time Matthews was the biggest star at the network, earning $5 million a year. He always toadied up to CEO Jack Welch, had the ear of NBC CEO Bob Wright, and they all vacationed together at their summer homes on Nantucket Island. In 2002, U.S. News & World Report ran an item that had Matthews opining that if Donahue remained on the air, he would bring down the network. Mathews hates Olbermann and their on-air tiffs made must-see television but also had executives pulling out there hair. I wouldn’t doubt that Mathews could be a contributory element as I suspect he was in Donahue’s firing. Matthews understands corporate and political survival. He knows how to play the game.

All that being said, ‘Hardball’ is the only cable news program I watch every night.

Not infrequently I found Olbermann’s presentation pompous, self-righteous and hyper-emotional but I usually also found him fearless, correct, intelligent and even necessary. And sometimes he was even eloquent, something rarely found on cable TV news. Although I watched infrequently, for all his flaws I will miss his on-air presence.

There is a also a great deal of speculation that Comcast wanted Olbermann out. The merger of Comcast and NBCU occurred the day before Olbermann’s firing:

“Comcast, the nation’s biggest cable and broadband Internet company, on Thursday announced plans to take over NBC Universal, creating a new kind of media colossus that would not only produce some of America’s most popular entertainment but also control viewers’ access to it.” Washington Post.

Comcast denies any involvement but corporate press releases are notoriously obfuscating.

Olberman had the highest ratings on MSNBC and was paid 7 million a year. It is probable he will receive that for the next two years, just as I received payment for a year after The Richard Bey Show was cancelled. (That’s another story!) I’m sure he’s not crying today. After all, he’ll be paid handsomely to don those martyr’s robes. He might be able to do radio…but in general these contracts keep you off the air for the duration.

Short answer for the firing: Olberman was not a corporate darling. He directly and publicly stood up to management. He is difficult and uncompromising to work with. He has had fewer and fewer supporters at the corporate level of NBC. New management comes in and wants to make its own imprint. It doesn’t want to deal with a guy who can make trouble when they try to change things.

And that, as they say, is show biz!