After Keith Olbermann’s abrupt but apparently heavily negotiated departure from MSNBC last night, it looks like Olbermann’s cable television future begins and ends with three letters: C-N-N. With the news that Olbermann will only have to be off the air until this fall, his move to CNN looks as obvious as David Letterman’s move to CBS was in 1993.
After Rupert Murdoch’s New York Post (cringe) reported today that, “Sources said network brass basically paid the pontificating pundit to scram by working out an agreement in which he would give up his show and continue to be paid. The garrulous gasbag will likely also have to stay off the air at least until fall under the agreement.” The interesting part is the fact that Olbermann can come back in the fall, and we know he won’t be coming back to MSNBC or Fox News, so that leaves the former cable news giant with a giant hole of ratings doom at 8 PM in their schedule every weeknight, CNN.
Speculation has already began centering around whether CNN would accept someone as opinionated and political as Olbermann, as this would go against the neutral news brand they have been crafting. I think they would, because hiring Olbermann would make the network a player in prime time again. CNN would no longer be getting beaten by Headline News in the prime time ratings. In fact the minute Olbermann went on the air for them, they would jump into second place at 8 PM. Olbermann’s reruns were beating Anderson Cooper in the ratings. As CBS dreamed of Dave in the 1990s, I’ll bet that CNN would love to have Olbermann.
The move would also be great for Olbermann, who would go from being on the cable network in the fewest number of homes to one of the networks on all of cable with the greatest reach. Olbermann could reach a global audience with CNN. That’s something that he could never have dreamed of on MSNBC. This is going to sound odd given the current ratings position, but Olbermann will likely have more viewers on CNN than he ever would have on MSNBC.
Much like CBS before Letterman arrived, CNN has all the resources, but they don’t have a star. Keith Olbermann is a star without a home. Before Letterman, CBS went from having nothing at 11:35 to having a program that will draw at worst about 4 million viewers a night. CNN has nothing but the unwatchable Parker/Spitzer, one of the worst ideas in cable news history, at 8 PM. Olbermann’s arrival at CNN would have the same impact that Letterman’s did on CBS. CNN’s prime time would be on the radar and relevant again.
For Olbermann, the job of boosting CNN would be a lot easier that what he faced at MSNBC. After dumping Larry King, CNN is already in the middle of a makeover. The network is still the most identifiable brand in cable news, and the go to destination for breaking news coverage. Olbermann would only be required to show up and do his thing. The show will be different, but it will still be Olbermann. Anderson Cooper, who has been suffocating under the weight of trying to carry prime time alone, expressed surprise that Olbermann left MSNBC, but I have a hunch that he would welcome him with open arms at CNN.
The joining of CNN and Keith Olbermann makes too much sense for it not to happen, and the fact that Keith will be free just in time for the beginning of the fall season makes this move all the more likely. The people who should be most worried about Olbermann turning up on CNN are Fox News. Olbermann will have finally escaped from his MSNBC box, and will have a bigger platform from which to go after Fox. Bill O’Reilly will not be amused.
I can also imagine that MSNBC viewers won’t be breaking their Keith at 8, Rachel at 9 habit. They only difference would be that they will be changing channels at 9 PM to do so. Olbermann leaving MSNBC could be the best thing to happen to both CNN and fans of Olbermann, so while things look dark today for Countdown viewers, there is a new day coming. I remember being bummed when Letterman left NBC, but 18 years later he is still going strong at CBS, and I think that like Letterman things will work out just fine for Keith Olbermann.