In my professional opinion, letting Keith Olbermann go is arguably the dumbest business decision a media firm has made in the last twelve months. Like NPR’s firing of Juan Williams last year, this decision seems emotionally charged and personal. The only logical explanation I can come up with is that someone at MSNBC or Comcast recently had a frontal lobotomy.
Don’t get me wrong. As a conservative, I find Keith Olbermann’s commentary bitterly partisan, annoying, strident, irritating, and one-sided. He is the ultimate anti-O’Reilly. But that is his job. MSNBC was not paying him to deliver unbiased news. It was paying him to comment on the news in his own unique way. Anyone with a brain knows that Olbermann’s views exhibited a pointed leftest slant. That’s why they tuned into his program night after night. He was an entertainer and that is what entertainers do. They deliver ratings.
And boy did Olbermann deliver ratings. Starting with a couple hundred thousand viewers in 2003, his show’s viewership grew more than 50% from 2006 to 2007 to 726,000, and ultimately expanded to a steady and loyal base of over one million viewers a night. His efforts single-handedly brought MSNBC to the number two position behind Fox News.
Olbermann is the modern equivalent of the goose that laid MSNBC’s golden eggs.
Although Olbermann is not permitted to speak about his departure as part of the conditions of his severance, management’s rationale is slowing leaking into the press. At no point have I ever seen any legitimate business case for letting the man go.
If his ratings were declining and his show was losing market share, I could understand letting him go. Or if authorities found a kiddie porn dungeon in his basement, then getting rid of him would also obviously be a sound strategy to protect MSNBC’s brand.
So what horrible offense did Olbermann commit to deserve MSNBC’s self-immolating act of parting ways with its single-most productive media asset?
He was not nice.
According to the New York Times, Olbermann had “a distinctive and outspoken voice and a mercurial personality with a track record of attacking his superiors and making early exits.” His boss, Phil Griffin has noted, “It was, like, you meet a guy and fall in love with him…then you commit yourself to him, and he turns out to be a jerk and difficult and brutal.”
News flash, Phil: You are running a network, not a dating service. Get over it. I hope you come to realize that you probably just made the worst business decision in your career, if not in network history. I am really sorry that your feelings were hurt. I cannot wait to see how you feel when your job is eliminated.
This kind of emotional decision-making and politicking happens to varying degrees in every organization. It, unfortunately, is unavoidable. What makes it particularly egregious in this case is that Olbermann’s performance was about as close to black and white as it gets. Keeping Olbermann at the network is not just about keeping MSNBC’s network profitable, it is about MSNBC’s survival.
Yet management chose to kill its golden goose. Good luck with that, MSNBC.