Keith Olbermann's abrupt exit from “Countdown” on Friday left most of the cable news business scratching its collective head -- and MSNBC with a gaping hole in its primetime lineup.
MSNBC is now left with is a softer lineup of hosts that, while progressive, are certainly not in the kind of ski-jumper, forward-leaning angle Olbermann was.
“They've got to figure out a new framework,” Newsday’s Verne Gay said. “Suddenly, Keith, the guy that was really responsible for making it lean forward, I mean, leaning really far forward, is gone. So I don't really know how they can maintain the momentum. They've got to figure out a new personality.”
“Countdown With Keith Olbermann” was by far MSNBC’s highest-rated show, and Olbermann defined the network’s progressive, forward leaning mission -- the ideological alternative to Fox News.
Love him or hate him, CNN’s Anderson Cooper said on his “AC 360” show Friday, Olbermann was a “huge talent.”
So where does MSNBC go from here?
“There are so many progressives out there who felt like he was the poetic, literary, intelligent emotion and passionate voice for them,” David Shuster, former MSNBC reporter and Olbermann friend, told Howard Kurtz on “Reliable Sources” Sunday. “And they are looking up now and saying, 'OK, where do we turn now?' … Is it going to be maybe with Rachel [Maddow] or Ed [Schultz] or somebody else at MSNBC? They are missing this voice, and they will miss this voice.”
It’s clear with Keith gone that Maddow, Olbermann’s protégé, is now MSNBC’s most marketable talent -- and most-watched, too.
In 2010, "Countdown" averaged 268,000 viewers in the 25-to-54-year-old demographic, according Nielsen, putting it in 11th place on cable behind Fox News' nightly entire lineup.
Maddow's 9 p.m. show, which edged Lawrence O'Donnell's 10 p.m. program in total viewers with just under 1 million, averaged 256,000 viewers 25-to-54. (O'Donnell, who will now move to 8:00 p.m. ahead of Maddow, averaged 851,000 total viewers and 258,000 25-54-year-olds at 10 p.m.)
With Maddow becoming "more of a star,” Jane Hall, a former Fox News commentator, told “Reliable Sources,” MSNBC felt “more comfortable dealing with his mercurial nature [by] saying, ‘Hey, no more.’”
And the network appears to be comfortable with promoting Maddow and O'Donnell -- who proved to be a worthy fill-in for Olbermann on "Countdown" when the now ex-host's parents were sick -- as primetime talent from within.
It also appears that -- despite Comcast’s insistence that its pending takeover of NBC Universal had nothing to do with Olbermann’s departure -- the incoming management structure at the cable network did not favor Olbermann.
With Jeff Zucker out and NBC News president Steve Capus slotted above MSNBC president Phil Griffin in the Comcast reporting structure, Olbermann was set to lose two of his biggest executive shields at the Peacock's corporate level, Shuster said.
“NBC News is going to have much more of an influence over what happens on MSNBC,” Shuster said. “And I think Keith anticipated that his wings might be clipped, that some of the special commentaries that he would be making ... that there would be much more sort of deference that would have to be paid to NBC News' standards and judgments."(UPDATE: MSNBC says Shuster is wrong about changes to MSNBC's management structure.)
Capus, Gay added, “is very close to Tom Brokaw,” and Hall noted that Brokaw and others at NBC were very unhappy “with [Olbermann’s] election night editorializing.”
“They felt the brand was really diminished,” Baltimore Sun television critic David Zurawik said. “And NBC News is absolutely right to say, ‘This does not belong on our airwaves, we're going to dial it back.’ And that's what's happening here. You watch how fast Maddow and all of the rest of them dial it back in a week.”
NBC News, Shuster said, “may want to put a certain set of journalistic standards on MSNBC, and a lot of people will cheer them on to do that, including people at MSNBC who respect Steve Capus.”
“Let's not lose sight of the fact that Olbermann had the highest-rated program on MSNBC,” Kurtz said. “They've now given that up.”
Schultz, who will replace O'Donnell at 10:00 p.m., averaged 244,000 total viewers, 158,000 of them in the 25-54 demo at 6 p.m.
As for finding someone who can fill Olbermann's shoes, several pundits don't believe that MSNBC will even try.
"I don't see MSNBC seeking out a big-name talent to replace Olbermann," TVNewser.com editor Alex Weprin told TheWrap. "Part of it is because I think they want to develop their own talent, but the other part is that there just isn't anyone out there that is big enough to draw Olbermann-esque ratings out of the gate."
Weprin said to look for MSNBC to sign some cheap, "untapped left-leaning talent" like Cenk Uyger -- who will move to Schultz's 6:00 p.m. slot, at least temporarily -- rather than taking "a big risk on some expensive talent that doesn't work out."
And in terms of a pull-back from its "lean forward" persona, Weprin doesn't think that will happen, either.
"Since leaning leftward in primetime, MSNBC's ratings have been up, leading to higher ad revenue and higher subscription fees. Comcast is a business, after all, so even if some of their executives may not like the politics of the hosts, there is no denying the business potential."