Try, Try Again?

Peter Boyer has a pretty solid profile of Keith Olberman and how he has and continues to change the cable broadcasting universe. But this paragraph about the response to Olbermann's first "special commentary" bothered me:

His bosses loved it. “I think we’re onto something,” the president of NBC News, Steve Capus, told me. “That’s what we keep hearing from the audience, more and more, is that they appreciate that we have people who are actually speaking truth to power, or being transparent in their own personal viewpoints.” That’s another way of saying that liberals, after many failed attempts, seem finally to have found their own Bill O’Reilly. Fox News still dominates the cable competition, and MSNBC over all continues to lag behind second-place CNN. O’Reilly’s audience is more than twice as big as Olbermann’s, which airs in the same prime-time period. But Olbermann’s ratings grew by nearly seventy-five per cent the year he began doing Special Comments, and the show is making money, a rare hit in MSNBC’s twelve-year run. “All of a sudden, he took off,” Griffin says. “In ways that MSNBC never had a show take off.”

How many failed attempts were there, exactly? My recollection of the relevant history is that first O'Reilly was successful. Then, because you're not allowed to put liberals on television, networks responded to his success by putting more conservatives on. Then someone at MSNBC had the crazy idea of giving Phil Donohue a show. Then Donohue's show became MSNBC's most popular program. At which point MSNBC canceled it because you're not allowed to put liberals on television. Some time after that, MSNBC put Keith Olbermann on intending, as Boyer reports, for his show to be a “newscast of record." Then, by accident, Olbermann started doing some liberal stuff. And it was successful, which based on the track record (one effort to put a liberal on cable and his show became the network's highest-rated program) is exactly what you would expect.

Meanwhile, I was watching This Week on ABC yesterday morning for the first time in a while, and I was surprised to see Robert Reich on their panel 'o pundits since, after all, you're not allowed to put liberals on television. Then they panned out and I saw that the panel also included Torie Clarke and George WIll, thus granting ABC amnesty under the "unless they're outnumbered two to one" exception to the "no liberals on television" rule.

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Matthew Yglesias is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.

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