No doubt about it, Keith Olbermann has the the big mo for MSNBC these days. In the just concluded second quarter, MSNBC’s 8 p.m. ET primetime anchor “Countdown with Keith Olbermann” soared 72% in total viewers, from an average of 412,000 during the same period last year to 710,000 during the April-May-June frame this year. His adults 25-54 numbers are moving in the right direction, though not quite as fast (averaging 241,000 viewers vs. 156,000 in the year-ago measure.) “Countdown” is now a solid No. 2 in its 8 p.m. berth to Fox News Channel’s titan of cable primetime, “The O’Reilly Factor” as CNN struggles to get its act together in that hour. CNN, which had the “Paula Zahn Now” (aka Paula Zahn soon-to-be-gone) in the time slot for most of the quarter, dropped 2% in viewers to an average of 594,000 for the quarter.
Beyond the numbers, “Countdown” for my money has evolved during the past year to be as good if not often better, smarter and sharper than “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart” in taking on the headlines in a no-nonsense manner, cutting through the hot air and nonsensical stuff that permeates politics and pop culture, and perhaps most importantly, producers are never too proud to invent a segment just to showcase the goofiest bits of film footage they can pull down off the vast global satellite smorgasbord that the resources of NBC News afford them. And when they don’t have the resources, they make do, in a low-tech, low-budget and proud of it way, with whatever’s lying around the offices (i.e. the popsicle-stick figures at right). But there’s substance to “Countdown” too. Keith is never better than when he’s fired up, as he was in the pic above on Monday night at the news that Scooter “leaky sieve” Libby is getting off almost scot-free. And the regular “Oddball” segment of “Countdown” is almost always good for a laugh out loud moment, unless Michael Jackson’s involved.
I give NBC Universal credit for having the corporate stomach to let Keith be Keith, an unabashedly liberal-leaning populist voice, and damn good reporter when real news breaks. I don’t think it’s political altruism on the Peacock’s part, just good counterprogramming. After all, “Countdown” squares off against “O’Reilly Factor,” in more ways than one, as viewers of both shows know (and are probably tired of by now.) Just to prove that there’s room enough on the dial for all perspectives, “Factor” was also up quarter-to-quarter (to 2.22 million viewers from 2.07 million in the ’06 frame.) In fact, having “Countdown” and “Factor” air at the same time is kind of the electronic equivalent of the olden days of having staunchly Republican and staunchly Democratic newspapers offering dueling headlines and perspectives on the day’s events. It’s (still) a great country.