MSNBC has pulled the plug on its experiment of having liberal commentators Keith Olbermann and Chris Matthews anchor the cabler’s election news coverage. The duo will remain on-air as analysts.
The move comes after tension-filled broadcasts in which Olbermann and Matthews fought with each other at the Democratic National Convention about who was talking more and in which Olbermann dismissed fellow host Joe Scarborough’s analysis of a resurgent McCain campaign with the rejoinder, “Jesus, Joe, why don’t you get a shovel?”
In the wake of the controversy, NBC News elder statesman Tom Brokaw remarked Olbermann had “gone too far.”
The last straw appears to have been during the Republican National Convention, when Olbermann criticized the GOP’s video tribute to the victims of 9/11 as it was being shown.
“I found it ironic and instructive that I could have easily said exactly what I did say, exactly when I did say it, if I had been wearing a different hat, and nobody would have taken any issue,” he told The New York Times.
To Olbermann’s point, is the concept of the straight-laced network news anchor offering down-the-middle coverage an anachronism? Does the public even care or do they actually prefer the opinion?
MSNBC’s viewership increased in large part to Olbermann’s nightly “Countdown” show, so much so that it added a companion broadcast with Air America commentator Rachel Maddow that debuts tonight. CNN saw a similar uptick with its nightly dose of firebrand Lou Dobbs who started on the network hosting straight-laced financial coverage. Sister network CNN Headline News moved away from its patented “news wheel” format in favor of primetime hosts Glenn Beck and Nancy Grace and saw its tune-in climb. And of course, love it or hate it, there’s the success of numerous Fox News personalities who regularly trump the competition in the ratings.
Over on the traditional print side, newspaper Web sites can’t launch opinionated blogs fast enough to keep dwindling readership and market share.
The verdict will come post-election if MSNBC ratings rise or fall and if the NBC News division will return Olbermann and Matthews to the anchor chairs during potentially less heated times.