Mr. Olbermann, That's No Way to Say 'Good-bye'

Tuning In: Advertisers Appreciate a Prolonged Farewell. Plus: Super Bowl Cities

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Keith, clipped: Sounds as if NBC Universal won't be sorry to see MSNBC host Keith Olbermann go, but can the same be said of advertisers?

Keith Olbermann's farewell
Keith Olbermann's farewell
Mr. Olbermann's farewell, delivered in the final moments of "Countdown" Friday evening, was abrupt, untelegraphed and, perhaps, not executed with sponsors in mind.

While Mr. Olbermann has a reputation of being hard to handle, his success on the network can't be denied. He helped MSNBC forge its current identity of a politically-focused cable-news network that features partisan commentary from the left-thinking point of view during prime time. With Mr. Olbermann's program as its centerpiece, MSNBC's prime time has often surpassed CNN's prime time, taking over the No. 2 spot behind wildly popular Fox News.

So it's puzzling that the cable-news network didn't give people a little more notice. In many cases, departures are carefully choreographed. Larry King didn't hop off CNN in 24 hours notice, nor have Oprah Winfrey or Regis Philbin fled from their daytime-TV perches with just a few words. In all cases it's been the opposite.

Taking your sweet time to say good-bye is generally good business on TV. Mr. King, Ms. Winfrey and Mr. Philbin all gave several months' notice to viewers, sponsors and affiliates, so the parties that depend on them to make a buck could wade through alternate plans well before their shows went off the air. Besides, such a move primes the pump: fans of the show may well tune in more intently during its sprint to completion, and that anticipated ratings boost can lead to a lift in ad prices. Not so for MSNBC or its former darling host.

Of course, ending a cable-news show is not the same as ending, say, "Friends." MSNBC, like many cable networks, generally sells its inventory by the daypart, not by the specific program. Sponsors are likely to be purchasing a rotation of spots on prime time, not a specific placement in "Countdown" or any other show. As such, so long as MSNBC gets equivalent ratings in prime time after Mr. Olbermann -- and Rachel Maddow, at least, continues her run there -- there may not be much to worry about beyond missed opportunity.

At the same time, marketers placing ads on MSNBC likely did so out of a desire to be placed adjacent to Mr. Olbermann, or the ratings points he generated for the shows following him. While "The Last Word" with Lawrence O' Donnell -- now slated for Mr. Olbermann's 8 p.m. roost -- has been well-received, it doesn't yet have the imprimatur of Mr. Olbermann's program, a fact that may give advertisers pause.

Comcast's shadow: The Philadelphia cable concern swore up and down it wasn't involved in the Olbermann ouster, partly because it has promised not to "interfere" with NBC Universal's news operations and partly because it doesn't own NBC Universal yet, last week's approval for the deal notwithstanding.

"Comcast has not closed the transaction for NBC Universal and has no operational control at any of its properties including MSNBC," a Comcast spokeswoman said after Mr. Olbermann's fans wondered aloud whether Comcast played a role in his exit.

Yet Variety is reporting that Comcast is hardly waiting for the deal to close in order to start remaking NBC prime time. Comcast's pick for NBC Entertainment chief, Robert Greenblatt, is already remaking the NBC fall lineup, according to Variety.

You can't blame Mr. Greenblatt for getting going before the ink is dry on Comcast's takeover. NBC needs to ready a slate for this fall -- and to sell at this spring's upfronts. Variety says Mr. Greenblatt has ordered four pilots including a new take on "Wonder Woman" that we'd heard was being prepared for ABC. Of course, now that parent Walt Disney owns Marvel comics -- Wonder Woman is owned by Time Warner's DC Entertainment -- it comes as no surprise the show has to go elsewhere. Here's hoping Wonder Woman fares better than "The Bionic Woman."

Super Bowl cities: Fans of the Green Bay Packers and the Pittsburgh Steelers may be ecstatic today, secure in the knowledge that their favorite teams are heading to Super Bowl XLV on Feb. 6. But advertisers and media outlets are probably less thrilled.

The prospect of having the Jets or the Bears in the gridiron classic meant having one, if not two, of the nation's top markets, New York and Chicago, devoting rapt attention to the game.

Don't get us wrong; there's nothing wrong with the Packers or the Steelers. Both teams have a story to tell this season, stories that could be reason enough for a great Super Bowl. But media companies showing big-tickets sports events often prefer it when teams from top markets get into the contest. It helps them with ratings guarantees and other important facets of game-day viewership.

The Super Bowl is less vulnerable to geography, however, than other big sports championships. It's a one-day event, not a prolonged one like the World Series, and the Bowl has broken ratings records in the last two years despite hosting smaller market teams, such as last year's New Orleans Saints and Indianapolis Colts.

If Fox's broadcast of Super Bowl XLV can surpass the ratings CBS snared last year -- which was already enough to surpass the final broadcast of "M*A*S*H" as the most-watched TV event of all time -- then talk of whether teams make the game is likely to cease indefinitely.

Tuning In is an ongoing series of commentaries by Ad Age TV Editor Brian Steinberg on the TV schedule, the ads it carries and changes within the industry. Follow him on Twitter.

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