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Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Olbermann on cable's bottom rung

Keith Olbermann

Poor Keith Olbermann. He never realized it but when he teamed up with Dan Patrick years ago on ESPN’s Sportscenter, he probably reached the zenith of his career. When he switched to MSNBC to become a liberal political commentator he probably figured he was on his way to fame and fortune and leading the charge against Fox News. It hasn’t happened and probably never will.

Keith has been canned at MSNBC where his final show on January 21 drew 1,106,000 viewers. That’s not too bad for a low rated channel but is still just 1/3 of the viewers of Bill O’Reilly and less than ½ of Sean Hannity’s audience at Fox. However, Olbermann’s numbers are about 200,000 more than his replacement, Lawrence O’Donnell.

Now Keith will try out his act at Current TV. Who is Current TV you ask? It’s a small public affairs cable channel that includes Al Gore as one of its backers.

To put things in perspective, Olbermann’s initial employer, ESPN, is the number one cable network drawing an average of 2,683,000 households in prime time. MSNBC draws about 1,500,000. Current draws 18,000. These are nightly averages from the fourth quarter of 2010 as reported by Aaron Barnhart of the Kansas City Star.

To give you an idea of how low a number 18,000 households is, the CW channel plays on fewer cable systems with shows like reruns of “The King of Queens” yet it outdraws Current which is the least watched channel that the Nielsen ratings follow.

Olbermann has a chance to sink or swim on Current. Will his one million viewers follow him if they can even find him? Surely he can boost the ratings above 18,000 households at least for one hour, but will it be enough? We shall see but one thing is for sure: He can’t sink much lower unless he becomes a spokesman for the fireplace channel.

Cable TV is a strange duck. There are many channels that have no business being carried by any system. However, strong ratings channels like ESPN, ABC, and others are able to use their leverage to coattail some of their weaker channels into the fold. Do we really need ESPN Classic or the Do It Yourself network? How about VH1 Classic, Fox Soccer Channel, and the Outdoor Network? No one watches them but they are attached to their big brothers as part of the deal.

Another mystery about cable is why doesn’t anyone give the world news station Al-Jazeera English a shot? It’s one of the most watched news networks in the world but can’t even get a trial run here. Barnhart reports that during the Egyptian crisis, 7 million Americans watched it streamed through their computer but the cable companies say there is no demand. Maybe not or maybe they are concerned about a controversy since it is an Arab channel.

Maybe Al-Jazeera can sneak on a system somewhere if they hire Olbermann after he and Al Gore get into a fight and Keith goes job hunting again

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