Why Keith Olbermann was made dispensable

February 1, 2011
Fox News programming ratings chart

Or the rise and fall of hate TV

Since the news broke, I have been following the Keith Olbermann affair, gorging on both left-wing and right-wing conspiracy theories behind his sudden departure from MSNBC. It took a lot of wading through the swamps of bias and party partisanship before forming my own opinion.

Clarity first came in a blog post on the Daily Beast by John Avlon, author of “Wingnuts: How the Lunatic Fringe is Hijacking America.” Avlon argues that Olbermann’s departure could have less to do with Comcast conspiracy theories and the like, and more to do with waning interest in the entire genre of hate-based political talk shows — the kind that pollutes cable airwaves from 5:00 to 10:00 each evening.

Avlon suggests that as ratings have fallen, Olbermann became more and more dispensable and not worth the trouble of his inflated ego. He goes on to report that ratings for most of these shows — the Maddows, Becks, O’Reillys, and Olbermanns — have fallen over the past year, with Glenn Beck losing more than 60 percent of his audience compared to this time in 2010.

I wanted to verify his conclusions, but Internet searches brought me to left- and right-wing bloggers whose sole intent is to disguise any reversal of ratings by their favored pundit.

But working with friends at MayoSeitz Media, a media buying service, I was able to confirm that Beck’s rating, as well as the entire lineup of FauxNews shows, have fallen dramatically over the past year. From what I can tell, MSNBC is also losing eyeballs.

Source: MayoSeitz Media

Their demise could not come too soon. Surely, opinion has its place. But too often, hate-based political talk on both sides of the issue merely masquerades as real news, conning the public into believing each side is committed to some greater good. In reality, they are engaged in nothing more than “The-Munsters“-vs.-“The-Addams-Family” battle of counterprogramming to gain ratings.

Can’t we see that it’s all the same program regardless of whether it’s Fred Gwynne or John Astin? The only difference is the make-up, or in the case of hate TV, the manufactured political bias. They all play by the exact same rules. Or more precisely, they all play by the exact same bending of the rules. Tell half-truths. Play to anger. Twist realities. Borrow from one another the tactics of character assassination and vitriol.

Olbermann’s “Worst Person in the World” was simply a more guttural take on O’Reilly’s “Pinheads and Patriots.” Olbermann never gave a voice to opposing guests or views. O’Reilly invites them on and then simply screams over them.

The world can only take so much hate and disdain at a time when the real issues of an unraveling empire threaten our daily lives. 2011 could be the year when the voices of hate talk TV grow silent, as we all grow tired of feigned outrage and scripted invectives, and all that divides instead of conquers the real problems of our time.

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Frank Freudberg
8 years 3 months ago

Great, insightful post, Greg. I agree with everything you wrote, except I am not optimistic about this being the year when those raucous voices of the extreme left and right die down. I think there is always a voyeuristic appetite for the invective you describe. And unfortunately, hate TV (unlike the Munsters vs Addams Family shows which only killed off a few of our brain cells) does its real damage by distracting us from, as you point out, the crucial issues of our time.