Game over

Keith Olbermann is hanging up his completely weird news gig and returning to the world of sports broadcasting. Now what the hell was that all about?

Published December 1, 1998 8:00PM (EST)

It was on a chilly night late this election season that Keith Olbermann stole my heart. A Republican spokesman on Olbermann's prime-time MSNBC news program, "The Big Show," was holding forth with one of those 30-second stump speeches political operatives stencil to the inside of their eyelids before hitting the chat shows, accusing Democratic candidates of "demagoguing Social Security," among other crimes. After wrapping up the interview, Olbermann paused a beat, looked into the camera and declared:

"Sir, 'demagogue' is not a verb."

Denigrate, if you like, the smirking approach to the daily news that Olbermann brought to his two nightly news shows; condemn him, if you will, for transplanting the flippancy of ESPN's "SportsCenter," where he made his name, to the haughty environs of the nightly news -- but in the post-Edwin Newman era, what so-called traditional TV news anchor is willing to throw down the gauntlet over a part of speech?

It's disappointing, then, that Olbermann has decided to leave for Fox News to host another sportscast, ending, after this week, the bizarre experiment that was "The Big Show with Keith Olbermann." When MSNBC hired Olbermann away from ESPN last fall, it probably expected a diverting news program with an edge -- a can't-miss combo of hot-button politics and Olbermann's patented highlight-reel shtick. (Right down to the pseudocollegiate opening graphics, in fact, "The Big Show" was designed more like a sportscast than a news show, even opening with its own version of a bloopers reel -- three or four minutes of quick-cut soundbites from the day's news interspersed with Olbermann's wise-ass commentary.) What the network got instead was a nightly metacommentary on the very scandal-milking that had become MSNBC's reason for being. The Monica Lewinsky story, which broke just a few months after Olbermann started with MSNBC, turned him into the Ted Koppel of presidential blow jobs (just as Ted Koppel was becoming precisely the same thing), doubling his workload as MSNBC soon tapped him to host a second show, the late-night "White House in Crisis."

After four months Olbermann vented with a surprising commencement speech at Cornell University, beating his and his colleagues' breasts for "covering this story 28 hours out of every 24." As I wrote in August, it was a little hard to empathize with Olbermann trying to have his fame and loathe it too -- Olbermann has cashed a half year's worth of checks since declaring that "about three weeks ago I ... told my employers that I simply could not continue doing this show." But it undeniably made for interesting television. Over the past several months, Olbermann's show has turned into a long-running one-man psychodrama, the main subject of which has been not Clinton's troubles but the increasingly sardonic anchor's cheerful contempt for his own job.

Given nothing but a parody of actual news to report on night after night, Olbermann turned his program into a parody of a news show -- or rather, an imitation of a parody of a news show, often closer to fellow SportsCenter alum Craig Kilborn's "The Daily Show" on Comedy Central than to its straight-news analogue, "Nightline." (He ended some of his broadcasts, for instance, by wadding up his note cards and throwing them at the camera -- the postmodern televisual shorthand for "Fuck it, you and I both know this is showbiz" à la David Letterman and Norm MacDonald.) He even deprecated his own program by incorporating a self-deflating "Nightline" riff into his opening voice-over: "Because it's still your tax dollars in action, we bring you Day 296 of the Clinton-Lewinsky investigation!"

The very premise of "The Big Show" seemed as if MSNBC were subconsciously parodying itself and its hyperventilating approach to the news from Washington. We cover public affairs like a full-contact sport anyway, it seemed to be saying -- except better, because the season never ends and nobody ever wins -- so why not just cut the crap and turn our prime-time news show into a sportscast? And with a weird amalgam of career savvy and idealism, going through 10 varieties of bemusement an hour, Olbermann took the cynical premise and ran with it, in the process showing how much TV news has to learn from sports journalism.

The mistake MSNBC made with Olbermann was to hire someone from outside the world of news, who therefore was enough of a greenhorn to still take newscasting seriously. It would be easy to patronize "The Big Show" as mere news lite -- most of the largely positive reviews Olbermann has received have emphasized his wry asides and rapid-fire pop-culture references (e.g., "The 'Them' Webster Hubbell was referring to was of course Bill and Hillary Clinton and not the giant ants of the 1950s sci-fi movie classic"). But in fact, Olbermann was far more dignified a host than most of his choleric peers at MSNBC and Fox, treating his interview subjects with an almost old-fashioned courtliness. That became painfully clear last week when he took the night off and was replaced by abrasive yapmeister John Gibson of MSNBC's talk-krieg "InterNight." Gibson tromped all over the show's studied coolness like a doberman tearing up the azaleas, orchestrating an "InterNight"-style barkfest among James Warren, John Fund and Arianna Huffington. It was a clash of two cable-news cultures: Olbermann's art of the raised eyebrow against Gibson's jackhammering pleas for attention. It was InterminableNight.

Olbermann's decision to go back to sportscasting came just as, with the congressional elections and the ebbing of the impeachment drive, the political climate and world events conspired to bring onto his show something that he might have considered a long, long year ago to be actual news: for instance, last month's near-war with Iraq. Ironically, with this interruption to the runaway hit sitcom of 1998, Olbermann seemed, if not uncomfortable, at least uncertain about what tone he should strike to deal with real issues of life and death. It's as if months of repetition had made Olbermann more comfortable with the Lewinsky story, from which he could maintain a comfortable, smirking distance.

That might not have translated well to an actual international crisis. But it would have been interesting to find out: After all, what was the first Gulf War if not a highlight reel? What distinguished Olbermann from his colleagues was a sensitivity to semantic bullshit -- that "'demagogue' is not a verb" instinct -- which came straight out of his sportscasting background. He and his colleagues at ESPN took a stale, cliché-ridden field of journalism and subverted it, something that news broadcasting still sorely needs. Olbermann could barely bring himself to utter a cliché or parrot a piece of briefingese with a straight face: During the Iraq crisis, after the umpteenth repetition of the Pentagon's claim that it "tapped directly into Saddam's internal decision-making process," he burst out to NBC's Andrea Mitchell, "It sounds like they've put a bug in his brain." Likewise, Olbermann's pop-culture allusions weren't just funny, they reminded us that there was actually a world beyond the White House lawn and the House judiciary committee, something that the wonky Washington corps of television journalists rarely acknowledges.

Ultimately, Olbermann's broadcasts were proof of how archaic the typical anchored news show is: 50 years into the history of television, all these men and women in power suits are talking to us as if we're wide-eyed innocents trustingly absorbing every word. Smarter broadcasters, like the ESPN sports desk and MTV's programmers, know different. They know we're sitting at home talking back to the TV; that if we don't laugh with them we will assuredly laugh at them. ESPN's sportscasters -- like Beavis and Butt-head or their half-dozen successors on MTV -- gain our empathy because they talk back to the TV on our behalf. The message they send, which Olbermann transplanted to MSNBC, is: "We know what you're thinking." Whereas the message of the outdated news-anchor setup is: "We know what you should think."

Of course, Olbermann's theater of bemusement also simply allowed us to wallow in the non-news of the past year while pretending we were above it all. But he must have known that, had he marched from his Cornell commencement speech into principled unemployment, a hundred John Gibsons would have been ready to take his place. Now that he's jumping to Fox's sports desk, he has diplomatically said that he's not doing it out of disillusionment with the news business. Still, the decision recalls the ambivalence he betrayed when he first signed with MSNBC, telling reporters, "I am now, for better or worse, joining the ranks of newsmen." The question is whether anyone at MSNBC, or anywhere else, will care that it took him only a year under its regime to decide that the experience was, if not worse, at the very least no better.

By James Poniewozik

James Poniewozik is a Time magazine columnist on TV and media.

MORE FROM James Poniewozik

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Bill Clinton Espn Keith Olbermann Msnbc Paul Shirley