TV Upfront

For MSNBC's Olbermann, there's never a better time to play in the news pond

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Keith Olbermann has never been one to pull a punch. So correspondent Larry Dobrow went to the host of MSNBC's nightly "Countdown" to get his take on Katie's ascendance at CBS and other developments. Below is an edited transcript.

Is the state of televised news as dire as we've been led to believe?

I don't know if it's ever been healthier, to be honest. ... Look how many people are watching cable news outfits. It's more than made up for the losses on the network level. One issue here is when you look at TV news as a subject of reporting, very few people cover it seriously and have depth to their analysis. These writers have 2-hour deadlines: "This is what the people at Fox PR told me, so it must be true."

You've said before you don't watch televised news.

I don't [laughs]. I'm not a typical viewer. I watch a lot of history and a lot of documentaries. The only current-events program I'll watch is "Prime Minister's Questions" on C-SPAN. It's the most entertaining political program in the world until somebody starts broadcasting parliament sessions in South Korea. Three times a week there they start taking their shoes off and hitting each other over the head.

You were in a situation where you went from being part of a team to featured player-sort of like Katie Couric at CBS.

I don't know why it's assumed that somebody who's been successful in morning TV will be successful in evening news. Outside of [Tom] Brokaw and [John] Chancellor [on NBC], there's been a 100% failure rate. It's a different audience. With Katie and Matt [Lauer] and Al Roker and Ann Curry, "Today" has a great ensemble. Once you go out there on your own, there's nobody next to you to buffer people's reactions to you if they happen to be less than orgasmic. I'm not predicting the end of her career, because she has many talents. I've just never understood how you can uproot a plant and put it in different environment, then expect it to grow right away.

What are the challenges you find yourself dealing with on a day-by-day basis?

A lot of us are facing the same thing. It's how to keep news journalistically sound and viable as a TV property. Eight years ago on "The Big Show," we did 228 consecutive shows on Monica Lewinsky. That could have been suicidal. ... I kept asking myself, "Are we doing this story because it's news? Because the audience likes stories like this?" It comes down to the debate between what they should know and what they're obviously interested in. ... If you give viewers enough of what they're interested in seeing, they'll accept the stuff that might not be salacious or water-cooler material.

Is that what the network broadcasts miss?

There's a reluctance to give time to things that the audience is interested in. ... If they want to talk about last night's broadcast of "The Sopranos," you can afford to take a few minutes. If people like watching other people swallowing chickens whole, you can give 30 seconds to that.

What do you think advertisers want to see from shows like yours?

I wouldn't know. I have never had any interaction with them at all. All my employers ask of me is ratings: "I want to see 225,000 in the 25-54 demo." When you deliver them, all the other questions get shunted aside. The 25-54 sweet spot is pretty big. You're being asked to hit the broad side of a barn.

The future of televised news: Is it on the TV screen, or are we going to continue seeing blog and podcast and wireless become even more ubiquitous?

I wasn't part of the original class at CNN, but I went there in 1981. The two predictions everybody was making were that cable would supplant broadcast and that within three years we'd all be out in the street [laughs]. Every time there was a technology change, people assumed that the outstanding technology of the day would be swamped and eliminated. Radio didn't evaporate because of TV, and TV didn't evaporate because of cable.

The new technologies will only be as influential as they are easy. You don't have to hit very many buttons to watch us on cable, just as you can always carry your newspaper onto the train or into the john. Ultimately, we're all pretty lazy.
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