Saturday, November 06, 2010

A Fitting End to a Great Week

We've been on the road this week, so blogging has been non-existent. But, like many of you, we've been celebrating the GOP takeover of the House, and strong gains in the Senate. And while many analysts focused on the shifting balance of power in Washington, Republicans scored even more impressive wins at the state level.

Consider these facts, which put the GOP tsunami in perspective. After Tuesday's mid-term elections, Republicans now control a majority of the nation's governorships and picked up 680 seats in state legislatures. In 26 states, Republicans have a majority in both houses; in 15 they control the "redistricting trifecta: the governor's mansion, and both chambers of the state legislature. As the folks at National Journal observe, what began as a devastating election night for Democrats may stretch into a rough decade. With Republicans preparing to redraw district lines in many states, surviving Democratic lawmakers may find themselves gerry-mandered into oblivion.

True, conservatives had a few setbacks Tuesday night. It's disheartening to think that Harry Reid and Patty Murray will be returning to the Senate for six more years, and based on the results from California, that state is a lost cause. However, it will be nice to have Nancy Pelosi to kick around for another term, particularly if she wins her caucus battle and emerges as House Minority leader.

And, there was one more bit of good news late in the week. It came unexpectedly, and from the last place you'd expect: MSNBC. At week's end, the left-wing cable news network announced it is suspending host Keith Olbermann indefinitely, without pay. His crime? Making donations to Democratic political candidates, in violation of well-established policies at NBC News.

Needless to say, we were absolutely shocked--shocked!--to learn that Mr. Olbermann favors politicians who share his political views. But NBC has its policy and from what we can tell, it's never been a problem for hosts like Brian Williams, Matt Lauer and even dyed-in-the-wool radicals like Ed Schultz and Rachel Maddow. Interestingly, Fox News doesn't have a similar policy, but anchors at that network have generally refrained from making political donations. Shawn Hannity is a notable exception, giving $5,000 to Congresswoman Michelle Bachman's political action committee back in 2008.

Still, you've got to wonder what possessed Olbermann to write $2400 checks to three Democratic candidates last week, just days before the election and in clear violation of NBC's policies on political activities? We've heard several theories advanced. One suggests that Olbermann, as MSNBC's "star" (or what passes for a star at that ratings-challenged network) believed that the rules simply didn't apply to him. Others have suggested Mr. Olbermann was positively atwitter at the prospect of a huge Republican win and was trying to "rally" the liberal base, even at the risk of being caught--and punished--by his employer.

But a more intriguing scenario goes something like this: Olbermann is unhappy at NBC. His role on Sunday night football was eliminated this season, and he's also been banished from election coverage on the broadcast network. Meanwhile, CNN's prime-time ratings are in free fall, and their latest 8 p.m. offering, the dreadful Parker/Spitzer, is DOA. It's hardly a secret that CNN is already looking for a replacement in this time slot, and Olbermann's audience (while only a fraction of Bill O'Reilly's on FNC) would be a major improvement for the third-place cable news channel.

Unfortunately for CNN, Olbermann is currently locked into a four-year contract with MSNBC. However, violation of a network policy would give NBC an excuse to fire Olbermann, who (presumably) would surface at CNN (with a bigger contract and expanded role) in the very near future. If CNN has approached the MSNBC host (or his agent), then Olbermann may have been emboldened, believing he had nothing to lose--and maybe, a better deal to gain--if his political donations landed him in hot water. Additionally, if NBC decides to fire Olbermann, that could negate the "no compete" clause in his contract, allowing him to appear on CNN sooner, rather than later. So, there might be a method to Olbermann's latest act of madness.

Still, that reasoning would contradict our final theory, namely that the MSNBC anchor can't handle any degree of success. Over a 30-year broadcasting career, Olbermann has been fired (or walked away) from a number of plum jobs, including his most famous gig, as Dan Patrick's partner on ESPN's SportsCenter.

Indeed, Olbermann's reputation as a difficult employee is nearly as long as his resume. Fresh out of college, he was almost fired from his first sportscasting job, after telling his bosses at UPI radio service that their inept management made the network a "small time" operation. He followed that with a rocky, three-year stint at CNN, and a few months as sports anchor at Boston's WCVB-TV. Only in his mid-20's Olbermann was seemingly washed-up, out of work and living back at home with his parents in suburban New York.

Still, there were a few folks willing to take a chance on Olbermann. After stints at two TV stations in Los Angeles, he landed at ESPN, becoming part of the marquee team on SportsCenter. But Olbermann made plenty of enemies at the network; he battled with ESPN executives and subjected on-air colleagues to blistering criticism (with the exception of Dan Patrick). He left the sports channel under a cloud in 1997 and was personally fired from Fox Sports by Rupert Murdoch in 2001. A fellow sports anchor at ESPN once observed that Olbermann doesn't just burn bridges, he napalms them. When the sports channel celebrated its 25th anniversary in 2004, Olbermann was conspicuously absent from the reunion of current and former hosts--a reminder that he is still reviled in Bristol.

Six years later, he's apparently worn out his welcome again, this time at MSNBC. The suspension must be particularly galling for Mr. Olbermann, given his self-appointed position as guardian of the republic from all things conservative. Now, with the GOP preparing to take control of the House, the MSNBC host has lost his nightly platform. No opportunity to rant about the "Nazis" and "fascists" who are leading the nation to ruin.

Making matters worse, Mr. Olbermann now has plenty of time to watch his hated rival, Bill O'Reilly, whose ratings are higher than ever. His condo in New York's Trump Tower must be a sort of gilded hell, with the suspended MSNBC anchor railing at the perennial "worst person in the world" who still owns the 8 pm time slot in cable news. To be fair, Olbermann's "Countdown" was usually the highest-rated program on MSNBC, but (using a baseball analogy) it's a bit like comparing the Kansas City Royals to the New York Yankees. Yes, the Royals are a major league team, but the Yankees don't spend a lot of time worrying about them. O'Reilly will keep crushing the competition, regardless of whether Olbermann is on the air.

The real question is whether NBC is willing to give him another chance, or they're ready to make a change. Despite modest ratings, Olbermann makes serious money (his current four-year deal is worth an estimated $30 million), so NBC is saving money with the current suspension. There's also a belief that a lower-paid host could deliver similar numbers, giving the network an incentive to dump Keith, once and for all.

But even if Olbermann keeps his job, the suspension may drag on for several months. His MSNBC colleague, David Shuster, was taken off the air seven months ago and has not returned. Shuster's sin? Taping a pilot for CNN without NBC's permission. If the Shuster case is any indicator, NBC will take its time in deciding Olbermann's fate. With the 2010 elections over, NBC has plenty of time to consider his future--and audition potential replacements. If Olbermann returns to the network, it won't be until sometime next year. And there's a fair chance that his bloated mug won't appear on MSNBC again.

Which is a definite bonus for conservatives. True, MSNBC is still unwatchable, but it's a bit less unwatchable with Olbermann off the air. Call it cable justice, an early Christmas gift, or both. Couldn't happen to a more deserving chap. And with Olby's suspension coming on the heels of the biggest GOP mid-term blowout in 70 years? How sweet it is.
ADDENDUM: We should enjoy Olbermann's suspension while it lasts. Earlier today, MSNBC announced he'll return to "Countdown" Tuesday night. Somewhere, David Shuster is scratching his head.

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