Keith Olbermann
War hasn't been hell for Keith Olbermann. As President Bush's poll ratings have declined in response to his handling of the Iraq situation, the ratings for Olbermann's nightly MSNBC newscast Countdown have shot up. The irreverent anchor recently signed on to front the cable news channel's most-watched show for another four years. NBC News sweetened the pot by giving him occasional essays on NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams and two prime time specials each year on the big network. The Biz asked Olbermann to reflect on his recent success and his new deal. Countdown's ratings have built a lot over the year. Do you think it had something to with MSNBC finally sticking with a show for more than a few months?
Keith Olberman: There were 17 different alignments between my two tenures at 8 pm on MSNBC. I did it from 1997 to 1998. I left. [By the time] I came back four years ago on a fill-in basis and we made it Countdown, they had had 17 different programs [in that time slot]. A growing number of people are upset and aggravated about the war in Iraq. Do you think viewers see Countdown as a place they can get news about the war that is a little more attuned to their sentiments?
Olbermann: I don't know the exact mix. Clearly in the last year and a half, the people to whom I'm beholden are George Bush, Bill O'Reilly, Dan Patrick and people at Nielsen who decided to include DVR ratings in cable TV ratings. We're the most DVR'd show in cable news. We had growth from that. But in terms of the sensibility regarding the war, I think the public is still ahead of us, slightly, and way ahead of the politicians. But from the beginning on May 1, 2003, I interviewed Chris Matthews right after the whole "Mission Accomplished" nonsense, and he was fulsome about it and portrayed it fairly correctly in what it would be perceived as.… I said, "Wait a minute. Long-term? What about the fact that you have this country that doesn't have a government right now and we have no real post-war plan in our pocket. Is this premature?" This has been a steady attitude. It's obviously gotten louder, and what a fatal boondoggle it's been. It's been an ever-increasing element of the show, and it culminated last year with "Special Comments." [Olbermann's occasional commentaries on the show.] One of your predecessors, Phil Donahue, was an early critic of the war and was canceled when he had the highest ratings on MSNBC.
Olbermann: He was the highest-rated show on the network. But there were two things people leave out of the equation. I would be the first person to scream about bias against a liberal point of view anytime — or a bias against a conservative point of view. When the show started in Secaucus, New Jersey, nobody watched. When they put him in New York with a studio audience, the ratings increased; unfortunately, the cost doubled. The staff was twice the size as mine. It was very expensive to produce for a "we don't want to put a lot of cash into it" branch of the industry. That memo about him being too liberal at a time of war — it really was a straw on a very laden camel's back. There was a consideration there, but it was marginal. So no one at NBC News has ever said to you, "Please, we don't want to get a phone call"?
Olbermann: Early in 2003, there was a moment where it almost crashed down. They tried to put in a commentary by [right-wing radio talk-show host] Michael Savage. We had agreed beforehand, when the announcement was made that they were putting him on the air, that I wouldn't have anything to do with him. They said, "Yes, we understand, we figured that going in." One night I walk in, and it's in the show rundown. I called my agent and said, "Look at what they've done," and she said, "You have to walk out." I had just two months [previous to that] signed a contract. It probably would have been the end of my career. But I couldn't appear with him because he's an insane fascist. I finally got a hold of [NBC News senior vice president] Phil Griffin and said no. He said, "Can you look at it and provide me with some sort of television reason that it can't run?" I said, "So, if I look at it and say it's wordy or repetitive or amateurishly shot, you won't force me to run it?" He said yes. So we worked our way out of that…. Other than that, the only elements of political content brought up to me by management have been, "Those special comments were great. Can you do them once a week?" Is that a Chris Matthews sample in the intro to the "Oddball" segment?
Olbermann: The "Ha!", that's Chris. Do you have to pay him for that?
Olbermann: I think we worked that into his deal — an additional $25 a year for that. How do you choose the "Worst Person in the World?"
Olbermann: It is my decision. I collect them during the ordinary means of news gathering. Then later in the day, Denis Horgan, who was with me at ESPN, will send me a list — he's dedicated to collecting the potential newsmakers and worst people, and he sends me a list with stories and explanations about as many as 20 candidates. But it's my call. Have you ever regretted one of your "Worst Person" choices?
Olbermann: Technically. We wanted a picture of one of the right-wing radio guys. Somehow instead of him we had a picture of [former Democratic Georgia senator] Max Cleland, who would never be on the list. He turned out to be a regular viewer of the show and called and asked what the hell I was doing there. Other then that I can't think of coming back and saying, "Hey, we screwed up, that was wrong." How do you envision your role for the broadcast side of NBC News?
Olbermann: I've already seen people say, "You're going to do commentaries? You're going to do political firebrand stuff?" I don't think so. They should have been described as video essays. They're designed as words and pictures. It will essentially be news-driven stuff. The 100th anniversary of the birth of Joseph Welch: Do a minute and a half on the attorney who brought down Joe McCarthy. When Pope John Paul II was sick, I did a little minute-and-a-half video essay, which was free verse about who he was and what he meant to people of faith and people who were not of faith. What he did practically about the labor unions in Poland. Brian Williams said, "We've got to get stuff like that on our show." He's thinking in those terms: News events that might not have headlines to them. And the specials?
Olbermann: We hope to do a year in review in July. It's a great compliment to hear from management, "We're not sure what it's going to be about or what it should look like, but just do it Countdown style." And they know what they mean.