Olbermann, Conan and the Age of Digital Celebrity

Professional pundit Keith Olbermann’s abrupt exit from MSNBC last month was big news in the world of political commentary, but his new gig, announced today, has repercussions beyond the talking head world. Olbermann is taking the role of Chief News Officer at Current Media, and will also be hosting what the press release calls “a new nightly primetime news and commentary show” on Current TV.

Olbermann’s exit deal with MSNBC means that he’ll have to stay off the air for an unspecified amount of time, similar to what Conan O’Brien experienced last year following his exit from The Tonight Show. But during a conference call announcing this decision, Current Media co-founder (and former Vice President) Al Gore stated that the new show would launch this spring. “In a world where there are fewer and fewer opportunities to hear truly distinct, unfettered voices on television, we are delighted to provide Olbermann with the independent platform and freedom that Current can and does uniquely offer,” Gore said in the announcement.

Moving to Current cuts Olbermann off from about 25 million households — Current TV is available in 60 million homes, according to the New York Times, while MSNBC beams into 85 million. It’s also much lower down in the listings, available only on the digital subscription tier.

But will that matter? Olbermann’s path is similar to O’Brien’s from last year — jumping from major network entity to much smaller platform, and bringing with him a vocal fanbase and a huge amount of buzz. This is an age, after all, when a personal brand can potentially be larger than a distribution platform.

Choosing to associate with a lesser-known network — whether it be TBS or Current — is also a guaranteed way for these guys to avoid issues faced at bigger networks and cement their own power. Olbermann, who has a history of battling with management, is taking this one step further by becoming management himself. It’s classic big-fish-small-pond strategy, except that while the fish may live in a small pond, the pond is on the Internet. That means Olbermann and O’Brien’s are not limited just to the small-fry cable networks that actually air their shows.

However, the move to a smaller platform means that the need to be buzzworthy is that much greater. O’Brien has gotten a lot of traction out of digital stunts like an online Q&A series and a 24-hour behind-the-scenes live stream, but his show is still lost in the late-night marketplace, with ratings averaging about one million viewers nightly. TBS says it’s happy, but O’Brien’s value as a brand has definitely declined since his departure from NBC.

The difference with Olbermann is that O’Brien wasn’t interested in exploring new distribution models — he clearly just wanted to keep doing what he was doing on The Tonight Show. Olbermann, meanwhile, has never struggled to get conversations started or stir up controversy. With “[a show] that is produced independently of corporate interference,” as he put it this morning, it’ll be interesting to see what kinds of fights he starts — and more importantly, if he can bring new audiences in.

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