Earlier this week, I weighed in on a tempest-in-a-teacup between MSNBC commentator Keith Olbermann and followers of Dr. James Dobson.
For someone who’s in the journalism business, I really don’t watch a whole lot of TV news when I get home in the evenings. But one show I do check out frequently is “Countdown with Keith Olbermann,” which airs at 8 Eastern / 7 Central on MSNBC. I’ve been a fan of Olbermann’s for years, and this show is the perfect forum for him. He’s opinionated — the program makes no pretense of being a straight newscast; it’s more like the TV equivalent of “Paul Harvey News and Comment,” a newscast filtered through a particular commentator’s sensibilities. And yet, in a world filled with screechy commentators at either end of the spectrum, Olbermann is a sort of opinionated moderate — neither far right nor far left. What he is, is wry, and funny, and one heck of a good writer.
Olbermann first gained fame as a sportscaster. I’m not a regular watcher of ESPN’s “SportsCenter,” but I first became aware of Olbermann during the years when he was happily paired with Dan Patrick. Olbermann became famous for some of his catch phrases, but — unlike the many Olbermann wannabes who have followed — he had the knowledge and reporting skills to back up the flip attitude. During the “Spongebob” brouhaha this week, he wrote this at his blog:
[I]f I’ve ever gotten any direct instructions from my maker, they were that I’ll be judged by whether I tried to help other people, or hurt them. Also, that true belief should not be worn like a policeman’s club, nor used like one. And, finally, that I’m in big trouble for helping to introduce funny catchphrases into sportscasting.
A web site called “The Sports Center Altar” has a search engine for catch phrases made popular by SportsCenter anchors. Because of the way the database is set up, I can’t link directly to Olbermann’s page, but here are some of my favorite catch phrases listed there:
“He pulled a groin — his own, we hope!”
“From way downtown … BANG!”
“It’s deep, and I don’t think it’s playable.”
“I can read his lips, and he is not praying.”
Olbermann and Patrick had great success at ESPN; they even published a book, “The Big Show.” But Olbermann never got along with his bosses there. I recall seeing him guest on “The Daily Show,” which was hosted at the time by one of Olbermann’s former “SportsCenter” colleagues, Craig Kilborn. Olbermann made a comment about Bristol, Connecticut (where ESPN is located) being the most godforsaken place on earth. It turned out that Olbermann had violated policy by appearing on another cable network without prior permission. He was suspended for a week or two, and left the network soon thereafter.
He next ended up at MSNBC, which I couldn’t see at the time, hosting “The Big Show with Keith Olbermann,” a news program. But that was at the height of the Monica Lewinsky scandal, and Olbermann resented his bosses’ insistence that he focus on the story almost exclusively. So he left MSNBC and went to Fox Sports, which was trying to compete head-to-head with “SportsCenter.” That didn’t work out either, and Fox took him off the air. The rumors began to fly that Olbermann was difficult to work with, practically unemployable.
When 9/11 struck, Olbermann — who was living in New York — began filing freelance reports on the catastrophe for a Los Angeles radio station, and it seemed to have reinvigorated him. Soon, he was on ABC radio, doing daily commentaries under titles made famous by Howard Cosell: “Speaking of Sports” and “Speaking of Everything.” (He even filled in for Paul Harvey.)
NBC Sports, for which he’d worked before ESPN, came calling, and wanted him to serve as the cable anchor for the Athens Olympics. He began making preparations. Then, Jerry Nachman, who had been hosting a show on MSNBC, took sick, and Olbermann had his agent ask whether he had burned his bridges or whether they might be interested in having him fill in, at least on an interim basis. It turns out they were glad to have him back. He went on the air with a show entitled “Countdown” during the countdown to the Iraq war; after that, it shifted to its current format, a countdown of five stories which Olbermann believes viewers will be talking about the next day, interspersed with a few other daily features.
Soon, the “unemployable” Olbermann had been on the air a year, and on his anniversary he gleefully read off a long list of previous MSNBC hosts who had failed to make 12 months in the 8 p.m. slot. As the Athens Olympics — and the presidential election — approached, the higher-ups at NBC decided it would be better to leave him on “Countdown” than to send him to Athens for weeks of preparation and broadcast. He’s still there, approaching his second anniversary and as ornery as ever.