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October 12, 2006

Olbermann's rising fortunes & transmedia newsmaking

I just read this article about the rising ratings of Keith Olbermann's MSNBC program Countdown. Olbermann has emerged from his sportscaster past (he's still the best ESPN anchor of all time) to serve as an alternative to the conservative punditocracy popularized on Fox News (& cloned across the channel grid), offering the most strident and erudite critiques of the Bush administration to be found on television. The article rightly suggests that one of Olbermann's strengths has been counter-programming, showing that when it comes to Fox News, the reverse logic of "if you can't join 'em, beat 'em" holds - as Olbermann says in the article, "The purpose of this is to get people to think and supply the marketplace of ideas with something at every fruit stand, something of every variety. As an industry, only half the fruit stand has been open the last four years." (Feel free to assign your own links between pundits and particular kinds of fruit...)

What is only alluded to in the article seems to be just as central of a factor in Olbermann's rising success, especially among "quality" demographics vs. Fox: Olbermann & MSNBC have been forward-thinking in embracing the transmedia distribution of the program and Olbermann's persona. For years, Olbermann blogged on MSNBC as Bloggermann, allowing for quick linking & dissemination of his stories, especially around potential voter fraud in the 2004 elections. MSNBC clips the best of each night's show into a brief daily audio podcast, as well as posting numerous video clips online to allow viewers to watch and share on demand. When he delivers one of his "special comments," they shoot to the top of YouTube charts and generate heat on lefty blogs like Crooks & Liars and Salon's VideoDog, rivalling only the online repurposing frenzy toward Daily Show and Colbert Report. MSNBC even allows him to moonlight as a cohost for ESPN Radio, teaming with his former Sportscenter partner Dan Patrick each day to talk sports & promote his nightly show.

This transmedia dissemination of an otherwise ephemeral nightly newscast suggests the importance of old media institutions allowing new forms to use & reuse content - it is gratifying that MSNBC is reaping rewards in the old ratings system in part due to its willingness to allow the web to generate attention for its program, rather than trying to control and restrict its intellectual property. Thus while many decry the demise of quality television journalism, the online circulation of such public affairs television guides our attention via a viewer-driven filtering process salvaging the specific moments that break through the facade and transcend the endless high-decibel monotony that typifies cable news.


To Jason Mittel:

This is a comment on your Keith Olbermann article as well as a personal follow-up to our talk at the "Flow" conference in Austin about putting together a Roundtable on Fair Use. So it's interesting synchronicity that I talk to you after seeing his MediaCommons posting.

But I did enjoy the link to your thoughts on Keith Olbermann from the video clip posted by Jeff on MediaCommons, and thought they were well taken, as well as having a glimpse of Olbermann (who I had heard about from people like Ron Simon but never watched).

There might be a case of Edward R. Murrow imitation going on around the country post-George Clooney's "Good Night and Good Luck" - with its obvious timing to situate itself against the new McCarthyism of the Bush administration. I particpate in that Edward R Murrow cult myself.

The Radulovich program represented a "turning point." As did Cronkite's personal decision to post a commentary against the Viet Nam war after his visit to Viet Nam (and after having listed to the commentaries each week of Eric Severeid--who proceeded him with his opinion pieces against the war, as he preceded Murrow in denouncing McCarthyism.

But there is something else that strikes me about the strong-opinion journalists (known sometimes in the parlance as "blow hards." Howard Kurtz's book is the only one I know that readably summarizes the trend ("Hot Air"), but I see a link (echo, parallel) to the sectarian press of the 18th century.

Has anyone gone into any kind of depth on this? If so, I'd like to know about it.

You don't want to stretch historical allusions to far, but most of the current discussion of new media is profoundly a-historical, leaving it to a few people, like David Thorburn, to make stimulating historial associations.

What's happening now and the radically sectarian (and abusive) journalism seems to echo what was going in the hads of the journalists who wrote about (and wrote for and against) the "founding fathers" of these "United States" who came out of all those fractious colonies and then states in the 18th century.

Because I have spent a lot of time looking at and thinking about "television talk" of all kinds I would like to read or learn more about that period history in our history and what it might tell us about our own era as the new media re-shapes discourse through shifting and evolving technologies today.

In my own fair use posting on the web site recently (just in the last day or two the post-Conference web site has come out) I led with a quote from Tom Paine's "Common Sense" in 1776. Somehow it seemed right. Somehow I sensed a link to the revolutionary discourse of that era, though I haven't really worked this through in any way.

Another thing. Jeff Jones, the poster of the Olbermann video commentary on Media Commons, is =one of the people I talked to about doing a Roundtable next year at the Flow conference on Fair Use, and I already emailed him and will call your own attention to my polemic (I think its well written and sums up a good deal of time and reading I've done on this topic) in the most recent issue of Flow.

Besides having Jeff some other people contribute to a roundtable on intellectual property and fair use, it would be nice to have some media examples involved. I am completing a 30-minute "Fair Use Video History of TV Talk," which is comprised entirely of clips from talk shows illustrating the themes of my book on Television Talk: A History of the TV Talk Show, which came out at the end of 2002 under Tom Schatz's wizardly hands-on editorship of his Film and Television series at the UT Press. And by the time of the conference I'll have this video updated to accompany a new Encyclopedia of Television Talk I'm doing with my friend Bob Erler. Perhaps we could run a few minutes of that.

Any other nominations?

I'll be addressing Jeff Jones with that same question

Included in the up-dated video (we're working on it now) will be the Howard Dean "scream" (which our wonderful broadcast journalists unfairly did not explain to millions of viewers across the land was created by an isolation mike that separated Dean's voice from thousands of his followers in the arena, the Colbert Roast of GW, the George Allen "macaca" remark, and other instances of the TV/new media ricochet effect which I argue becomes the new center in a world that is both old and new media these days.

Do you have any ideas about other clips we could run.

By next year you'll be an Austinite in the PhD program?

I'm not sure how this "talk back" thing works in practice, since this is the first time I've used it, so I might try to email these same remarks more directly to you.

In any case I look forward to hearing back.

Posted by: Bernard Timberg | November 19, 2006 4:10 AM
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