Keith Olbermann has built Countdown into the fastest growing cable news program. He is the most watched MSNBC primetime personality and his show is driving the network's ratings surge.
Now MSNBC is announcing that Olbermann's contract has been renewed for four more years. More significantly, he is being given new duties with the daddy net, NBC. Olbermann will be submitting stories to NBC's Nightly News and he will also have two primetime Countdown specials on the network each year.
The contract renewal had to be a foregone conclusion given his contribution to MSNBC's growth. But the new placement on NBC's schedule is far more interesting. Despite the heat generated by the cable news wars, the broadcast network news programs each routinely deliver more viewers than all of the cable newsers combined. With this new broadcast platform, Olbermann will substantially expand his exposure and reputation. The announcement describes his Nightly News pieces as essays, which implies that they will contain some analysis and subjectivity. But their presence in a news program adds weight to Olbermann's profile.
The impact of the primetime specials will be more dependent on their subject matter, but have great potential to raise Olbermann's awareness and influence. If he uses these platforms to expand on the popular and passionate "Special Comments" from Countdown, he could cement the same sort of "conscience of the people" persona as that of his hero, Edward R. Murrow, whose famous sign off ("Good night and good luck") Olbermann has adopted.
What is particularly gratifying is the expected response from his nemesis, Bill O'Reilly. In the past few weeks, O'Reilly has been ramping up his criticism of NBC as a network that has veered off to the far left. O'Reilly's sense of direction is clearly screwed up. It's obvious to any junior high schooler that his attacks are aimed at Olbermann, whose name he is afraid to utter out loud. Since he has had no impact on the Countdown juggernaut, he escalated the assault to include NBC. So Olbermann's promotion will only rub salt in O'Reilly's wounds. Even more so because he has no comparable path for advancement. The Fox broadcast network does not have a national evening news program and it's primetime schedule is 30% shorter than the other networks, making a time slot for O'Reilly more difficult to find (if they even wanted to).
The result is that Olbermann will gain audience reach about which O'Reilly can only fantasize (please no falafel jokes). That additional exposure will drive new viewers to Countdown, fueling further growth of that program and MSNBC. The cable news wars will get hotter with O'Reilly becoming even more unhinged as his show is overtaken by the enemy. Look for O'Reilly to accuse Olbermann of treason and then spend the rest of the hour emulating Nancy Grace. The rest of the news herd will stampede toward Countdown-like programming. Technically, that would be a misinterpretation of the competitive landscape and representative of the media's penchant for shallow analysis, but that's what they'll do. And anything that hurts Fox and the rest of the propagandists and stenographers in the conventional media is an improvement over the status quo.