Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Why the Keith Olbermann Leaving MSNBC Story Gets a MarketingToMe Blog Post

When I got home on Friday evening, I found out that the day's Countdown program was the last and that Keith Olbermann was leaving MSNBC. I was so surprised, so incredulous, that I did a quick scan through the various news sites to confirm the story. Over the course of the surrounding weekend, there wasn't much in terms of details or explanations. And while this may not be a big story for some, I personally feel a sense of loss and can't shake the sense that it stands as a significant milestone in cultural history -- maybe not "the day the music died", but certainly the symbolic end to something much larger than the show itself.

Organizations in Transition
When it comes to the what and why of the end of Olbermann's relationship with NBC, most of what's being published right now tends to focus on a history of trouble between Olbermann and NBC management. The spin coming through many of these stories suggest that the events weren't connected to the Comcast merger and that Comcast had no role in the events. One piece that I read even suggested that Friday's events had been months in the making. However, even a casual business observer will note the lack of an elegant transition, a winding down like someone giving two weeks notice or a retiring. This didn't happen with message planning and a gradual release. And while I wasn't watching MSNBC on Friday night, my understanding is that the channel was still broadcasting Olbermann promo commercials after the announcement of the last show.

Clearly, whatever took place in New York on Friday, it was more explosion than scripted event and the surrounding events have been efforts at messaging damage control. If you play out the various possible scenarios, it's hard to imagine a viable one where NBC wanted to keep Olbermann on the air -- unlike most employer/employee relationships, broadcasters have much broader flexibility in how they define their relationships. If this had simply been Keith upset, they could have continued to run Countdown with a guest host while trying to work through a cool down period. If there was any bridge left, they could have brought him in occasionally for special events or commentary.

A Deeper Cultural Loss
We lost more than a political voice with the end of this show. To get to the heart of this, you have to peel back a few layers, dig down beneath partisan political rhetoric, the left and the right, and the theater of the term "wing". At the heart of the Countdown concept was a news show that riffed on the the traditional structure and tone with a unique, playful intelligence. Take the concept of counting down the top five news stories, something more akin to an MTV or VH1 video program. Traditional news programs always lead with the top story and work their way down a closing light moment like waterskiing squirrels.

Olbermann also brought a unique cultural intelligence to the television news role. Equally at home quoting from classical literature or sports history, Olbermann used using a wide range of cultural references to bring verbal flourish to the world of Yet Another news story. Instead of reducing things to the lowest common denominator, he elevated the common denominator, bridging low and high brow. In the same way that a typical Sports Center viewer had a deep awareness of the history of sport and a high sports IQ, Olbermann's Countdown assumed its audience was intelligent and that the show wasn't their only source of content. Instead of Yet Another politics or news show, Olbermann made the show feel more like getting an update on the news from one of your friends -- one who was just as likely to be irreverent as serious.

And while I would love to use specific examples of broadcast moments where Keith was so much better than so many broadcasters, it's hard to present good examples without starting a partisan back-and-forth. While I might find places where Olbermann dug deeper, understood the bigger story and continued to question a story, someone with a right-wing, anti-Olbermann bias might call him badgering or worse.

Much has been made of the politics surrounding Keith Olbermann. There has also been a lot of speculation surrounding Comcast management's political interests and how that may affect content. In some of the left-right comparisons, MSNBC is often painted as the counter to Fox News, representing a left-leaning political spin. I think that Jon Stewart's assessment of MSNBC as hopelessly muddled is probably a more accurate analysis.

But regardless, one of the messaging points that keeps surfacing is this idea that MSNBC is maintaining their commitment to liberal voices through Rachel Maddow, Lawrence O'Donnell, and Ed Schultz. This is one of those great examples of trying to promote messaging that supports an image that simply doesn't match your actions. Going down a list, from the cancellation of Phil Donahue's show through the network's back and forth with David Schuster and it's well-publicized ongoing conflicts with Olbermann, NBC has repeatedly acted in ways that suggest no commitment to any sort of left-wing or liberal messaging. At best, their support seems to be a limited tolerance, driven by a general recognition that "liberal" content provides them some measurable level of audience and some base level of product differentiation. I suspect that within the internal ranks of the NBC organization, those that still speak with any sort of liberal know that there is a limit on NBC's tolerance of their voice.

Comcast? NBC? Does it Really Matter?
We may never know whether this was personal politics, corporate politics, or just business. The events don't smell like the moves of the Food Network, putting all of their old chef-stars out to pasture so that they can replace them with branded celebrities that Food Network owns the marketing rights for. Instead, this feels more like that first power-play in the content carrier revolution, when the newly crowned Comcast-NBC merger states emphatically, "whatever, I do what I want!"

As long as the government continues to approve of mergers like the Comcast-NBC deal, as more and more of our emerging communications platforms get wrapped up in consolidated ownership of content, distribution, and infrastructure, and as long as we continue to tolerate politically active corporate entities like Clear Channel, News Corp., and Comcast controlling huge chunks of our communications infrastructure, we'll see the lines between politics and business messaging erode any existing framework of open communication.

Olbermann's New Show
But if you have any doubts about what was behind all of this, the news came through that Olbermann will be getting a new show on Al Gore's Current TV. Like me, you'll probably have to jump through a few hoops to find the channel listing and see if your local version of Comcast even carries the channel.

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