Despite managing to anger Keith Olbermann’s audience by suspending the Countdown anchor, MSNBC actually reaped the benefits of much higher than normal Friday night rating for Countdown. 1.2 million viewers tuned in to MSNBC at 8 PM on Friday night. This represents a 20%-33% increase over Countdown’s usual Friday night performance.
Friday nights are usually very slow for cable news, but it seems the controversy surrounding Keith Olbermann’s suspension lead to curious viewers tuning in to Countdown to see what if anything was going to be said. Olbermann’s recent Friday night low total viewership number was 866,000 on August 27. The show’s recent high with Olbermann was 1.10 million. In six of the past eleven Fridays, Olbermann did not break one million total viewers, and his average usually fell between 950,000 and 1 million.
For Countdown, Friday’s ratings jump was rather sizable. Despite the fact that Countdown has struggled this year, and has lost about 20% or more of its audience over last year, Friday’s result does not mean that the show was better off without Olbermann. The viewership increase on Friday can be directly attributed more to curiosity than any sort of viewer ambivalence towards Keith Olbermann. If the suspension would have continued, Countdown’s ratings would have suffered.
Last Friday was Countdown’s most watched night since the night after the 2010 election, when the program had 1.3 million total viewers. I am not a conspiracy theorist, but if this was a publicity stunt to boost Olbermann’s ratings, it worked. This goes to show that there is no such thing as bad publicity when it comes to cable news. I expect that Olbermann’s return tomorrow will be Countdown’s highest rated night in a long time.
Olbermann released a very nice explanation and an apology for the incident in a letter to his viewers today, which I suspect will be repeated on air tomorrow night, “I also wish to apologize to you viewers for having precipitated such anxiety and unnecessary drama. You should know that I mistakenly violated an inconsistently applied rule — which I previously knew nothing about — that pertains to the process by which such political contributions are approved by NBC. Certainly this mistake merited a form of public acknowledgment and/or internal warning, and an on-air discussion about the merits of limitations on such campaign contributions by all employees of news organizations. Instead, after my representative was assured that no suspension was contemplated, I was suspended without a hearing, and learned of that suspension through the media.”
Olbermann and Countdown have really struggled after the 2008 election. George W. Bush was a fantastic nightly foil for Olbermann, and his show seemed to lose a little of its stride with a Democratic president in office. Olbermann has done some fine shows. Even though I disagreed with his kill the bill healthcare reform stance, he did some great shows on that issue, but mostly it seemed to me that Keith was in a bit of a rut, which was bound to happen to a show that relies so much on progressive emotion, when Democrats controlled everything.
The whole suspension debacle could end up being a good thing for both Olbermann and MSNBC. Now that Republicans control the House, Olbermann has a something to release his inner Howard Beale at, and could come back energized and focused, while MSNBC got a bunch of free publicity for Countdown. It would have been interesting to see what Countdown’s loyal viewers would have done if Olbermann’s suspension would have continued, but luckily for them, they will never have to find out, but for one night suspending Keith Olbermann worked out really well for MSNBC.