Keith Olbermann can spin with the best of them.
So anticipating that the ratings for Monday's debut of "Countdown" on his new cable outlet, Current, might bring unpleasant comparisons with the numbers for the show's previous incarnation on MSNBC, he's warning reporters to be wary of what they might hear from "certain former employers of mine about ratings numbers."
Olbermann, of course, has plenty of former employers: MSNBC, Fox Sports Net and ESPN, to name some of the biggies. He left MSNBC in January, announcing his departure on the show reportedly only minutes after reaching agreement with the network during a commercial break.
His new employer, the nearly 6-year-old Current, is the brainchild of former Vice President Al Gore and businessman Joel Hyatt (Comcast, which has it at Channel 107 in its lineup, owns a 10 percent stake) and boasts a Peabody Award-winning news show, "Vanguard," and, reportedly, an average U.S. audience that might fill the Wells Fargo Center, leaving maybe a few thousand more in the parking lot. (It's available, Olbermann said, in 60 million homes.)
Whatever Current's paying Olbermann -- he's not saying -- even conflicting reports measure his compensation in millions, not thousands. So there have to be some expectations, right?
“There are no set targets. If the people in the truck from which we are directing this show, the control room in the truck, if they can see the show — there’s like 10 of them in there — if they can see it, that will be a satisfactory audience total for Monday night,” said Olbermann on a conference call this morning at which he took only a few questions.
“No matter what they look like — and I may be talking in advance about what could be phenomenal ratings that we don’t expect for our show on Monday night — the ratings for Monday night will be about Monday night’s show. And the the ratings we’re interested are really for year 2013, once the election settles down. We’re in this for the long haul.”
He reserved the end of what turned out to be just a 21-minute call for a "special comment" on the numbers issue in which he noted that in 2003, about six months into the MSNBC era of "Countdown," “we were... at a total audience of about 200,000,” and that the news network's ratings had been the butt of jokes for several years.
I don't think I've ever heard anyone in television point out how bad his ratings once were somewhere else to downplay expectations for his new venture, but then no one ever accused Olbermann of doing what's expected.
Other nuggets from the call:
-- Though introduced to us as "chief news officer," when I asked Olbermann what kind of budget he had to expand Current's news operation beyond "Vanguard" (whose season premiere will follow the 8 p.m. "Countdown" Monday) he was damping down expectations there, too.
“The aspects of what I’m going to be doing outside of ‘Countdown’ are necessarily tabled until we get ‘Countdown’ on the air. Everyone else who has ever tried to put on or start a news and information network has made the mistake of doing everything all at once. We’re very happy... if Monday goes off without a hitch.”
-- What the title means to him: "What's important about it is that that it suggested that not only did Al and Joel Hyatt want me to do the show that they had seen, but that they also had an interest in, and a trust in, what I could bring in terms of developing other shows and bringing good talent here and staffing out the shows...It was somebody saying, 'Not only do we trust your broadcast, we trust your judgment.'"
-- When asked about MSNBC host Lawrence O'Donnell, whose "Last Word" occupies Olbermann's old time slot, he said he hadn't seen it. "I have not watched MSNBC since I left for more than about five minutes, because I don’t watch cable news."
-- Will he be taking shots at Fox News' Bill O'Reilly on the new "Countdown"?
"I think Bill’s lost a little on his fastball...so I suspect we’ll have O’Reilly mentions but probably a lot fewer, becaause he just doesn’t carry the water he used to.”