Charlie Sheen, Glenn Beck, Keith Olbermann, Simon Cowell, Katie Couric, Oprah Winfrey, Laura Schlessinger and Scott Pelley might sound like an unlikely dinner party, other than sharing a high tax bracket. If pressed, though, they might find something else in common — namely, what it’s like to miss your last job.
In hindsight, 2011 has been an unusually big year for TV transitions. With most of them, though, there’s the threat of buyer’s remorse — bringing to mind a Hollywood adage coined by the late agent Pat Faulstich: “The best job you’ll ever have is the one that precedes the one you always wanted.”
Each of the aforementioned personalities is either starting a new job or leaving an old one. And while they are to perhaps be applauded for risking new adventures despite their success, some have discovered — and the rest are likely to realize — that being the right talent often requires being in the right place and time as well.
Couric, for example, thrived as co-host of the “Today” show, before braving a move to anchor “The CBS Evening News” five years ago. While she broke ground as the first solo female host of a nightly network newscast, few would argue that her tenure — despite a few journalistic highlights — paid off for the once-and-still-third-place broadcast.
In other words, Couric learned the hard way that “Today” might have been her best job, just as Olbermann and Beck could wind up nostalgic for MSNBC and Fox News Channel, respectively.
Pelley, meanwhile, is expected to succeed Couric, but should already sense that anchoring the evening news isn’t quite the plum assignment it was even five years ago. His role as a featured “60 Minutes” correspondent could beat it all to hell.
Simon Cowell walked away from “American Idol” to launch “X Factor” later this year, just as Oprah Winfrey decided a quarter-century was long enough for her daytime program, devoting her resources to cable start-up the Oprah Winfrey Network.
No one will need to hold bake sales for either, but with “Idol” having weathered Cowell’s departure, one wonders whether the snarling Brit might face the prospect that the show was bigger than he was.
Even Winfrey — given how OWN has stumbled out of the starting gate — is receiving a cold splash of reality, reminded that broccoli TV (“Hey, it’s good for you!”) backed by slogans like “Live your best life” is an easier sell with the most powerful daytime franchise in history backing it up.
As previously noted in this space, the not-so-odd couple of Olbermann and Beck both found their oversized personas to be too much for their cable-news bosses to handle. Now Olbermann is moving his “Countdown” show to little-seen Current TV in June, with Beck remaining coy about details of his post-Fox News plans.
Olbermann has quit jobs before, but he sacrificed a great deal of reach by moving to Current, and — like Howard Stern and now Schlessinger’s shift to satellite radio — might struggle to stay front and center in the public conversation.
Beck promised his acolytes they’ll meet again, though it’s hard to imagine a more perfect confluence of talent and timing than the incendiary host, FNC and Barack Obama’s election: Beck’s show premiered a day before Obama’s inauguration, paving the way for Beck’s updated version of “Network’s” mad prophet Howard Beale, and earning everyone (for awhile, anyway) a mad profit.
Finally, there’s Sheen, who likes to tout his feature-film credentials but conveniently forgets how radioactive he once was before “Two and a Half Men” transformed him into TV’s highest-paid star.
Since his much-publicized meltdown, Sheen has had no trouble commanding the spotlight, but finding producers eager to work with him — or insurance providers willing to cover him — will limit the actor’s options, at least in the short-term, to the polluted periphery of the show-business carnival.
Nostalgia can be overblown in media circles — they don’t make ’em like Cronkite anymore — but as Faulstich observed, these big names could easily look back wistfully on either the jobs they vacated in 2011 or in a case like Couric’s, the ones that preceded them.
Despite flying high, then, those attending that hypothetical party would be well advised to tread cautiously, because the next step can be a real doozy. BRIAN LOWRY