"I have run out of new places to work," jokes Keith Olbermann about his return to MSNBC—and, as the man says, it's funny because it's true. Or at least rings true. Best known for anchoring ESPN's Sports Center from 1992 to 1997, Olbermann has worked not just for that network, which is owned by ABC, but also for CNN, CBS, NBC and MSNBC once before, Fox and Fox Sports, and CNN again. There really wasn't anyplace new for him to go—and, to make things worse, he hadn't left all those places on the best of terms. But, to some extent, that doesn't matter. Precocious (he was a network radio sportscaster at 20), intelligent, and very witty, he's too good to pass up—and too good to stay confined to sports. He returns to MSNBC to anchor its main nightly newscast, the old Brian Williams slot, in a new show called Countdown with Keith Olbermann. He'll also be the network's main anchor for Olympics coverage in 2004. One night last week, after his East Coast broadcast but before revving up again for the West Coast feed, Olbermann spoke to mediabistro.com about his past, his present, and whether there's a future for TV news.
Born: January 27, 1959
Hometown: New York, New York
First section of the Sunday Times he reads: Crossword ("It the only day I know I'll have the time to finish it.")
So what makes this show a "countdown"?
The countdown concept is in large part a McGuffin [Hitchcock's term for a device that moves the story forward but is itself irrelevant]. It is designed to be a framework, not to animate the program. It will serve the American fascination with lists, and it will be a different way of presenting things in news. We in the media, whether you're in print, broadcast TV, whatever, every show has a rundown, every newspaper has a story list—what's most important, where does it go, when does it play, what is the least important, what fills out the column, what fills out the segment. We're basically inviting the viewer in, to know exactly how we thought those things out; we're letting them watch the process as well. And the reason that there is very little counting down is that right now obviously those structures are inappropriate. As events in Iraq begin to recede, not in importance but in total dominance of the news, you'll begin to see more of these features introduced.
You left MSNBC somewhat contentiously in December of 1998. Did you ever imagine that you'd be returning four or five years later as their lead anchor?
It is kind of far-fetched. I have been telling people in jest that I have run out of new places to work and they have run out of new people to hire. But it's not like that. This results entirely from Dick Ebersol hiring me to host the Olympics for NBC's cable networks in two years. My agent put out on email to Erik Sorensen, who's the president of this operation, in February after hearing Jerry Nachman had taken ill, and said, "Would you consider having Keith to just fill in? He's not looking for anything, but he's going to be back in the company anyway, and you're short and we're running into perilous times. Maybe you could use him in some way, or is there too much history? " And the email came back, "I certainly would be open to it." Forty-six days later we had a contract to do the principal nighttime program on MSNBC. It's a testament to the people here. There weren't deep-burning enmities between me and MSNBC, but the people who hired me were the people who fought my leaving four or five years ago and with whom there were bruised if not bad feelings. And they said, "Well, this is useless. We need a new show, we need a new news anchor, and here he is. And let's just proceed and work that way." And I like the fact that this occurred, because it dispels the idea that my reputation as a bad employee was based on more than a little bit of silliness on my part, plus a whole lot of unfounded gossip. If I were that bad an employee, I could not be rehired here, period.
Of course, MSNBC isn't the only place you've had a history with. As you jokingly said, there wasn't anywhere left for you to work. You had complicated departures from a number of jobs.
Actually, not as often as you would think. I'll almost say a Hillary Clinton kind of thing, that there's a vast conspiracy somewhere. Now, it's not a conspiracy, and it's not vast. But for a long time, I dealt with a local television-sports columnist who would print anything he heard about me. And most of the stories about me are either exaggerations or flat-out falsehoods that originate from him and from one of his sources, this envious guy who works for Fox Sports Net, who was hired the day before I came over from NBC, and never got over that he wasn't the superstar. Those two people have done a great deal of story-spreading. And you mix that in with what are to me obviously childish and insecure behavior episodes on my part and you get a huge reputation as a horrible person to work with or to have work for you.
But I was asked to supply a list of people who would come work for this show with me on MSNBC, and it was about 75 people long. If you're an ogre, they're not going to want to work with you. The idea that things went down badly between me and ESPN when I left there is really a case of logical fallacy. When I left, they said, "If you ever want to come back, please come back." When I left nothing was perfect, nothing was ideal, it was a wearying place to work and I made mistakes in how I expressed many of my points of view, but things were good when I left. They became bad when I talked to a guy writing a book on ESPN. That's what I was never forgiven for. And things were contentious at MSNBC only because of a series of circumstances which really could not be repeated. There were five to six things that had to happen, each of those things a million-to-one shot, and they all happened in order. How bad could it have been if they brought me back?
Of all these gigs, which one were you at for the longest?
ESPN, for five and a half years.
Talking a little about the current job, what's the day-to-day life? You're putting on a show at eight, so do you still get into the office at nine in the mornings?
No, it's the other way around. This is the late shift. I get here around 3 and write like a fiend to get an hourlong newscast together. I have some help for some of the interview segments, and I get a lot of guidance, and occasionally I'm rewriting. But basically I'm writing an hour of television between 3 and 7:30 p.m. I take a half-hour before the show to get makeup and hair spray applied. Go on and do it, and then there's a dry down time between 9 and midnight, when we do it again. Because of the war, you can't put on a taped newscast as we have seen so many developments and extraordinary things occur especially after 11 at night. It's a really long day. And everybody who's associated with the show is working similar hours or worse. There's an energy provided by the fact that we are in one of those periods of time in which news is not something you have to look in the mirror and ask, "Am I providing anything for the public good?" This is information that people need to know. But long term, you don't want to put people on 12- or 13-hour-a-day schedule, and I don't want to be on one either. But right now it's basically work, go to sleep, work, go to sleep, Saturdays and Sundays off. And that's fine. Under the circumstances that's not a problem. It's fun to develop the show. I have enjoyed literally 99 percent of the minutes I have been here since I've been back.
If it's all so great, are you going to break your five-and-a-half-year record at MSNBC?
I would like to. The irony that people have never perceived, and I haven't been able to convince anybody of, is that I have always wanted to work at one place for the entirety of my career. So now, I would like to invest in a news program and go and do it for as long as I can. It's an important time for television news. What does it mean, what does it do about the fact that very few people under 50 watch it, how do you get them, how do you get them interested, what aren't we doing right, how do we draw them into not merely your newscast, but into the whole arena? They're not just not watching MSNBC—although there are some encouraging numbers about that—they're not watching any news. And what are we doing wrong, what are we missing, how are we not selling it?
And do you have answers to that?
Yeah, I have some theories. And that's the premise of the show, for a large part. Most people under the age of thirty have never been exposed to what was state-of-the-art hard news. When I was ten years old, there was a live shot from the moon. This was unbelievable. The live video camera—the mobile camera that allowed you to go on the story as it happened—was an innovation and a presentation that had never been seen before. Interaction between newscasters, more than one newscaster on a newscast, these were all things that were invented as I was growing up and were designed to keep people's attention in an ever more crowded entertainment universe. We haven't done a thing like that in 20 years in television news. Everybody keeps bringing out a 1980 newscast. Collectively, we have done very few new formats and very few new ideas about how to present it. I think that there are a few new ideas out there, and we are very encouraged by the initial results of this program which, as I said, is just at its embryonic stage. We're just letting a few of the gimmicks peek their heads up, and we're getting all encouraging signs about the youth of the audience watching this particular hour, their willingness to stay for the whole thing.
The same sort of approach that worked at Sports Center I think will work in news. Which is—and I've said this many times before, and so has Dan Patrick— we did a lot of slapstick, we did a lot of silliness, we did a lot of bad puns. But those were always there because the news was either not serious enough or not strong enough to carry an audience through an hour. We didn't throw the news over our shoulder just so we could write a great long lead-in to something that mentioned how many Hootie and the Blowfish golf tournaments we'd gone to. Yes, you've got to throw various hooks into people to keep them.; you've got to hit all the notes and say OK, we got the hard news, we have the dumb news, we have the intriguing news, we have the opinion on the news and we have a series of puns along the line of there's been an uprising in Basra, the Shiites have hit the fan. To get an audience that's used to rapid-fire entertainment, you've got to give them a good television show for 60 minutes. And you must, at the same time, and this is where I'm sort of wearing two hats, you have to be absolutely dedicated to saying, "We could keep the audience and grow it a little bit more than it even is now, but to do that we have to sell the news out, and we're not going to do it." And, you have to decide how much of one and the other. What can you play with? To me, you can play with the format, you can play with the always-serious tone, and as long as you can get it back to being completely serious when it needs to be, you can basically do whatever you want to make it a good TV show. And that's what we're going to try to do.
Jesse Oxfeld is the editor-in-chief of mediabistro.com. He was also, full disclosure, the first guest on the first episode of The Big Show, Olbermann's previous MSNBC program. Photo courtesy MSNBC.