Dear David Carr, Only you could have such great reporting on Keith Olbermann’s battle with Current TV on production matters that make all the difference between success and failure in television not just on election night.
Here is Mr. Carr’s column from Monday’s New York Times:
It was just six months ago that I wrote an article for The New York Times Magazine about the well-traveled anchor’s bold new partnership with Current TV, the low-rated liberal cable channel co-founded by former Vice President Al Gore.
I wondered how Current TV and the hot-headed Mr. Olbermann would get along, but back then, it was all hugs and hopeful rhetoric. At a Yankees game I attended with Mr. Olbermann, he said he was looking forward to working at a place where he would hold the title of chief news officer and where the corporate meddling would be at a minimum. Mr. Gore was similarly upbeat in a phone conversation for the article.
“Yes, he is a piece of work in all that that implies, but I have read all kinds of things about him and the Keith Olbermann I know is a good friend, extremely intelligent and uniformly positive,” Mr. Gore told me, adding, “The relationship is way more textured than owners and an employee. We are partners and friends, and this will be the first time that he has been an equity participant and co-owner of a channel that he works at.”
That didn’t seem to count for much on Tuesday night when Mr. Gore found himself participating in Current TV’s coverage of the Iowa caucuses while Mr. Olbermann was nowhere in sight. Without the star power of Mr. Olbermann and the trappings of a well-financed news outfit, the former vice president looked as if he were trapped in the studio of a midsize public access station.
Meanwhile, Mr. Olbermann refused to participate in any programming outside the parameters of his regularly scheduled “Countdown,” a show where he has all but taken himself hostage by broadcasting against a black backdrop. The motif scans as a running protest against the technical problems at the channel, with a candle lit to mark the start of the vigil. That nice, gooey start-up rhetoric now seems very far away.
Mr. Olbermann did excellent on-air work for CNN, Fox, ESPN, and MSNBC, but that never stopped him from burning bridges faster than they could be built. It rarely ended well in spite of his skills.
As it turned out, past performance was a good predictor of results going forward. Current executives have been reduced to communicating with their biggest talent through his manager and lawyer, with both sides working the media to get their story out. By creating drama in yet another high-profile assignment, Mr. Olbermann could be running out of options, but don’t bet the house on that, given how desperate cable channels are for anyone who can generate ratings, never mind the rough edges.
Having worked for big, moneyed cable outfits in the past, Mr. Olbermann was clearly disappointed in the deep technical problems at Current TV, a cable news start-up that had trouble producing live news programming, including “Countdown,” his 8 p.m. show. He declined to lead the channel’s special political coverage until those problems were resolved, but Current TV officials called his bluff and went ahead without him, pre-empting his show in the process. It was a game of chicken in which everybody ended up with egg on their faces.
The impasse has been remarkable to behold, even if few people are watching. Mr. Olbermann, who is reportedly being paid $50 million over the course of a five-year contract, had more than a million viewers when he left at MSNBC at the start of last year, but in the most recent ratings period, he was reaching just 200,000 people a night at Current TV, according to Nielsen. He’s been very disappointed in those numbers, and the fact that the channel has hired talent and built out capacity on the West Coast without his input. After a summer of production problems that never seemed to be resolved, a power failure darkened his studio last month. He responded by sitting in the dark.
Current TV executives are going through all kinds of gyrations to patch things together, while at the same time expressing surprise that Mr. Olbermann is acting like, well, Mr. Olbermann. When I talked to David Bohrman, president of the channel, he praised the quality of Mr. Olbermann’s show; but when I asked him about coverage of the New Hampshire primary on Tuesday night, all he could say on Friday was, “I hope Keith is part of our political coverage on Tuesday night and beyond,” adding, “That’s up to him.”
(Over the weekend, both sides said that progress had been made, and that although Mr. Olbermann will not be in front of the camera on Tuesday, he will be involved in Current’s election coverage on future nights. He confirmed as much on Twitter late Sunday. Earlier Sunday a spokeswoman for the channel said, “He’s told us he will do upcoming special election coverage, we hope he does and we would love for him to do it.”)
Mr. Olbermann’s contractual rights at Current TV are significant — he has control over the content of his show and his lawyers have argued that the channel has no right to pre-empt it for special election coverage — and management has very little leverage over him. So the channel is left to check his Twitter updates for indications of his mood, which is usually not very good.
Executives at Current TV told me they contacted Mr. Olbermann two months before the Iowa caucuses about being the anchor and executive producer of their coverage, and he declined. Mr. Olbermann thought it was silly to attempt to expand coverage when the channel’s marquee show lacked reliable production. But that didn’t stop him from calling in his staff for a news meeting on the day of the Iowa caucuses as if his show were going to appear, when he clearly knew that no such thing was going to happen, a pretty callous stunt by any measure. It fell to Mr. Bohrman to send a memo to the staff saying there would be no installment of “Countdown” that night. Ugly business, that.
But if Mr. Olbermann is disappointed in the widespread technical failures at Current TV, it should be pointed out that he helped choose the studio, an old building on the far west side of Manhattan that has turned out to be a lemon. He is a part of the management team, and you generally don’t get to rail against the Man if the Man is you.
Executives at the channel say the embarrassing public fight has more to do with his unwillingness to play, let alone play well, with others. Which is kind of a running meme in Mr. Olbermann’s career, but this time was supposed to be different.
By enrolling him at a high level in the remaking of Current TV and keeping the bureaucracy at a minimum at the small, privately held company, Mr. Gore and Joel Hyatt, the founders, hoped that the brilliant but chronically oppressed anchor would find the angel of his better nature. No angel has been forthcoming. Instead Mr. Olbermann has expressed multiple grievances through letters from his lawyers.
(Problems have only deepened since Mark Rosenthal, a chief executive Mr. Olbermann got along with, left in the middle of last summer and Mr. Bohrman, an experienced news executive, was brought in from CNN.) Current TV wants to be a player in the cable news/opinion world and most especially in the 2012 election, but their production capabilities are not ready for prime time and the man who was supposed to take the lead has barricaded himself within the four corners of his show and, so far, he’s not coming out. Mr. Hyatt, who is also the chief executive of Current TV, did not see that coming when we spoke last May.
“We think of Keith as our partner and as our friend,” he said then. “We don’t think of him as our employee, we don’t think of him as we’re a conglomerate and management, he’s the talent or worse, the employee.”
He was right about the last part. If Mr. Olbermann were simply an employee, they could tell him to show up at 7 p.m. Tuesday to anchor coverage of the New Hampshire primary. They can’t, and he won’t.