The Cutline

Keith Olbermann’s preemptive strike against ‘ratings spin’

Joe Pompeo
The Cutline

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One of the biggest challenges Keith Olbermann faces with his new weeknight show for Current TV is fighting prime time stalwarts Fox News, MSNBC (his former network) and, to a lesser extent, CNN for audience share. So media watchers will be eagerly awaiting the maiden ratings following "Countdown With Keith Olbermann's" Monday night premiere.

But to hear Olbermann tell it, the early ratings don't matter.

At the end of a 20-minute conference call with the press Friday morning, the anchor made a preemptive strike against the opposition's PR, cautioning reporters not to regurgitate "any ratings spin that you see coming out of any operation ... which is, in a poor common vernacular, strictly bull***t."

Rather, Olbermann said, he's more interested in how many people will be tuning in a few years down the line, especially after the 2012 presidential election. He noted that "Countdown" was only clocking around 200,000 viewers when MSNBC first started airing it in 2003; it was averaging more than a million as of his abrupt departure from the network in January.

"There are no set targets. If the people in the truck from which we are directing this show, and there's like 10 of them in there, if they can see the show, that will be a satisfactory audience total for Monday night, and we'll go from there," he said. "We're in this for the long haul."

Current TV's viewership is but a sliver of its more famous competitors in the cable news arena. The Al Gore-backed network has reached 60 million households since its 2005 launch, although Olbermann, who has been named chief news officer, has said he believes his show will eventually be seen in as many homes as any other U.S. cable news broadcast.

But for now, he's focused on building up the team he hopes will help bring in the eyeballs. During the call, Current TV announced nine additional contributors who will appear as regular guests on the show, including Matt Taibbi, Donald Sutherland and former MSNBC colleague David Shuster as primary guest-host; previously announced contributors include Michael Moore, Richard Lewis and Markos Moulitsas.

Asked about giving up the institutional gravitas and news gathering manpower of a corporate media behemoth, Olbermann said it was liberating.

"The purity of this operation--it is a corporation and we are trying to make money here, but every decision that will be made monetarily will be sort of a half-monetary, half news decision," he said, "as opposed to other environments in which a decision made on a show on a given night has ramifications reaching from other television networks, to radio operations to billboard companies to theme parks in Orlando Florida. When you get into an operation that is too big to isolate its news operation ... you wonder whether or not what you're saying is going to honk somebody off in an electronics division somewhere. I don't have to worry about any of that at all."

Nor did he seem concerned about no longer having journalism heavyweights like Richard Engel of NBC News to lean on. "When we need a reporter, we'll have a reporter," he said. "When we need someone on the scene, we'll have someone on the scene."

In other highlights, Olbermann said a recent report about his salary--$50 million over the next five years, according to the Wall Street Journal--was exaggerated. He also brushed off his long-standing feud with Fox News host Bill O'Reilly, with whom he shares the 8 p.m. time slot.

But perhaps the best sound bite of the call came when Olbermann was asked what he thought about his successor, Lawrence O'Donnell.

"I have not watched MSNBC for more than five minutes since I left it," he replied.

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