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ON TV: Election '08

Olbermann keeps news in order

August 07, 2007|Paul Brownfield | Times Staff Writer

More than any other news show on cable, MSNBC's "Countdown With Keith Olbermann" is us.

This has less to do with the host than the format, which is all about ranking things and listing things, prioritizing information in the way we've become acclimated to consume it: as somebody's -- anybody's -- best-of.

Olbermann, the host of "Countdown" since its inception in 2003, tonight moderates a Democratic presidential debate in Chicago sponsored by the AFL-CIO amid a year of improved ratings for "Countdown" that has seen one of its competition (no, not Bill O'Reilly, but CNN's Paula Zahn) drummed out of the race.

Perhaps not coincidentally, the former sports guy comes from a world of list-obsession plays of the day, players of the year and teams of the decade. Five years after his last full-time sports gig at Fox Sports Net, Olbermann has come to symbolize the quirky omniscience that broadcast news might very well demand in the future.

But it's the structure of "Countdown," which averaged 721,000 viewers in July, a bump for the show, that seems so savant-like.

The form does what CBS tried to do when it hired Katie Couric: It makes news feel like pop culture. Nick Hornby did this with love in his novel "High Fidelity" ("my desert island, all-time, top five most memorable split-ups, in chronological order," the book begins).

Putatively, "Countdown" counts down the day's top five stories, ending with No. 1. But this is really just artifice to make the medicine go down. The No. 5 story, which leads the broadcast, is the longest segment and usually concerns the biggest political story of the day (read: Olbermann calling out the latest Bush administration imbroglio). The so-called No. 1 story (read: Olbermann calling out Lindsay Lohan's latest imbroglio) is often puffery, or what Olbermann calls "water-cooler."

A day like, say, Thursday, July 26, neatly expresses the show's explication of pop culture's triumph over news: On the same day when the White House is beating back a perjury probe into its attorney general (the No. 5 story), more people will know about -- and, by extension, care about -- the No. 1 story, a teased "Today" show interview with J.K. Rowling on the final installment in the "Harry Potter" series.

But on "Countdown," there isn't just the ├╝ber-list, there are lists within lists. Each night Olbermann does the "Worst Person in the World," a cheeky feature that crams brief nuggets of information into a daily top three of ignominy -- "worse, worser, and worst."

Olbermann has used the list to create an arch-nemesis, Fox News' O'Reilly, whom he perennially trails in the ratings but regularly baits, with the kind of sardonic aggression liberal talkers find hard to pull off.

In the process, Olbermann has developed a new brand -- the leftist firebrand of cable news, taking on O'Reilly (in rhetoric if not ratings) and the Bush administration in verbose, breathlessly written editorials that get passed around like munchies on various TV news websites.

If Jon Stewart's withering, foxhole buffoonery is by popular conception a primary news source, then "Countdown" is Stewart's "Daily Show" done with a straight face.

To Stewart's "correspondents" Olbermann has a coterie of reporters, columnists and bloggers under contract to play themselves, but nonconfrontationally and un-ironically.

They're his salon of Beltway observers, and they typically confirm what Olbermann, you can tell, has already been thinking.

The effect is of an interested observer getting his perspective honed by better-connected observer-friends like the Washington Post's Dana Milbank and Newsweek's Richard Wolffe. On "Countdown," there is no back and forth -- just forth.

"You're not gonna get much of an argument out of me in suggesting that this is the sort of thing that should be on a national broadcast," Olbermann said, when I noted, as others have in print, that "Countdown" is the hybrid future of broadcast network news. "Some of the sort of brass band qualities to the show would have to be toned down."

This was last Monday in New York, over lunch at Le Parker Meridien in Midtown Manhattan. Olbermann came in wearing the pinstriped suit and gold tie he would be wearing on "Countdown" that night. He looked paler in person.

He was still digesting the news that former major league ballplayer Bill Robinson, a friend, and inveterate broadcaster Tom Snyder, an icon, had died.

To that end he seemed only tangentially to be enthusiastic about moderating a presidential debate. No, he hadn't seen the CNN-YouTube debate. Just highlights. He thought it was entertaining and that there was a lot of information given out, he said vaguely.

Asked who created the "Countdown" format, Olbermann said, "We kind of made it up." He credited a producer named Dennis Murray with burnishing the "Countdown" structure.

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