The important thing to remember about MSNBC is that since its debut in 1996 it’s been a mess more often than it hasn’t. It’s easy to look at its current state and imagine that the network has somehow gone downhill, given that the place’s ratings over the past couple of years have been disastrous and the decisions coming down from the top have felt like they were made by an escaped mental patient. You see what MSNBC is right now and can’t help but feel the red-headed stepchild of the NBC News family has finally just bottomed out, but the reality is that MS was always near the bottom. It had a few flashes of brilliance, some really intelligent voices, and certainly good intensions, but the network has never truly managed to find its footing. It’s performed admirably during times of crisis, but that can be said about most news operations. The issue with MSNBC has always been that when the forward momentum provided by big breaking news finally slows down, the network has no idea what it wants to be. It has no workable identity other than being an organization attached to the NBC News mothership, which is more a curse than a blessing seeing as how NBC keeps MS on a leash and will never let it deviate too far into behavior that that might embarrass the 30 Rock as a whole.
The only time MSNBC succeeded was when one of its hosts took it upon himself to grab the entire place by the balls and show it the way forward. In the mid 00s, Keith Olbermann struck out at the stupidity and tyranny of the Bush administration and the result was TV gold. His show, Countdown, wasn’t always highly rated, but it made waves, challenged those in power and was rarely dull. Maybe Olbermann’s feuds with Bill O’Reilly and other members of the conservative entertainment complex felt petty and juvenile on occasion, but his passion and indignation gave a voice to those who felt like they truly were voiceless in an era in which the Republican power structure and its media arm seemed to quash all dissent. Olbermann had personality to spare and very little concern for what the people in the corner offices thought of him. Yes, this made him a toxic presence behind the scenes and it’s a well known fact that he remains one to this day; the man can barely keep a job and he has a reputation for being a malignant cancer within any newsroom or TV operation he works for. More than once I’ve said that anybody who hires him at this point is nuts. But in the 2000s, he was a shot of pure adrenaline to the heart at a network that was otherwise DOA and I’ve thought more than once that both MS and Olbermann should consider swallowing their pride and acrimony and admitting that they need each other.
The question right now is, is that about to happen? According to Mediaite, MSNBC may be in talks with Olbermann about a return to primetime. Phil Griffin is still, inexplicably, in charge of MS, but with Andy Lack back at the helm of NBC News in general, there’s reportedly a collective freak-out going on at MSNBC as word begins to trickle down from the mothership that changes are coming. Lack has scheduled a Thursday town hall with the MS staffers and it wouldn’t be surprising if the new manager begins blank-slating the whole place. There are a few shows and hosts that are in a relative sense performing well enough to avoid the ax, but several sources are saying that All In with Chris Hayes, The Ed Show and the insufferable PoliticsNation with Al Sharpton, among others, are on the chopping block. Hayes hosts an admirable hour of in-depth liberal news and talk, but he’s currently staked out upon the most valuable piece of prime-time real estate at the network and he’s got nothing audience-wise to show for it. MSNBC can’t have that. Even if it wants to, even if it respects the hell out of Hayes and his show, it cannot allow something to fail horribly in that hour. Meanwhile, both Sharpton and Schultz are complete wastes of space and never should’ve been given shows in the first place. Griffin was already forced to purge Joy Reid and human Ambien hallucination Ronan Farrow, but there’s still so much more work that needs to be done. With that necessary upheaval almost surely coming, what remains to be seen is whether Phil Griffin stays at all and if he’s forced to bring back the giant pain-in-his-ass that was Olbermann.
But make no mistake: Olbermann needs to come back. First of all, after a lot of moving around, it should be obvious by now that MSNBC and Keith were made for one another. If he gets the call, it will be the second time MS has “parted ways” with Olbermann only to bring him back, since he did time at the network during the late 90s as well. Beyond that, though — and despite the trouble he’s known for having caused behind the scenes — he’s a brilliant broadcaster and a ferocious presence on television. Bringing him back would draw headlines and with the right kind of platform — meaning a show that gave Olbermann creative control but which provided him some smart and tough oversight — he could create something that might actually thrive at the network. Back in the 90s, Olbermann and Brian Williams were back to back in primetime, so it would be interesting to what the return of two fallen stars might do. You can bet this is exactly what Andy Lack is thinking right now. You can bet the rumors are true and he really is talking to Olbermann about making a return to MS prime since Olbermann recently announced that he’ll be leaving ESPN, making him a free agent. Lack is a big fan of Brian Williams, tarnished or not, so the notion of resurrecting him and putting him next to Olbermann probably sounds like a winning combination for him.
Can MSNBC actually be saved? Who knows? Again, the network has faltered throughout most of its history. But a reboot is absolutely a necessity at this point and letting bygones be bygones and returning Keith Olbermann to MS’s primetime feels like a no-brainer. He’s available. MSNBC needs a statement hire. It just makes sense.
Chez Pazienza was the beating heart of The Daily Banter, sadly passing away on February 25, 2017. His voice remains ever present at the Banter, and his influence as powerful as ever.