BOB GARFIELD: This is On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield. Once upon a time, there was the cable news network, CNN. Then came Fox News Channel, offering a fair and balanced 24-hour P.R. forum for their public and national committee, and then there arrived MSNBC, which was – well, who knew what it was, besides unimposing, and largely unwatched.
For years it languished as a distant third, but it is distant no longer. On the strength of its primary election coverage and on the emergence of primetime anchor Keith Olbermann, MSNBC has become a force to be reckoned with. On Tuesday, it outpolled Fox by 200,000 viewers, and in the coveted demographic of viewers aged 25 to 54, MSNBC trounced Fox by 37 percent.
Brian Stelter, who covers all things TV for The New York Times, says this has partly to do with the general ascendancy of cable, but also partly with this: [CLIPS] KEITH OLBERMANN: You, Mr. Bush, are a bald-faced liar – convicted by your own deliberate lies. You, Sir, have no business being president.
When somebody asks you, Sir, about Democrats who must now pull this country back from the abyss you have placed us at, when somebody asks you, Sir, about your gallant, noble, self-abnegating sacrifice of your golf game so as to soothe the families of the war dead – this advice, Mr. Bush – shut-the-hell-up! [END CLIPS] BRIAN STELTER: The ratings for MSNBC and especially for Keith Olbermann have been growing slowly and steadily for the past couple of years, but executives at NBC say this was the year. This is the breakout time for that network.
Now, the ratings may not stick around after the election. We saw that happen to MSNBC in 2000, as well. But for one of the first times in the network's history they've found their voice, and it's a very passionate, very involved and a significantly left-of-center voice. BOB GARFIELD: It seems to me that this occurred at approximately the time Keith Olbermann started going after the Bush Administration and being - BRIAN STELTER: Mm-hmm [AFFIRMATIVE]. BOB GARFIELD: - openly partisan - BRIAN STELTER: Mm-hmm [AFFIRMATIVE]. BOB GARFIELD: - on TV. BRIAN STELTER: It did indeed. It is new to have an anchor who has called for President Bush's impeachment, and who has condemned Hillary Clinton's campaigning tactics at one point, to be the lead anchor of election nights. But the viewers have responded to that more opinionated, more electrified type of coverage.
MSNBC's ratings are sometimes beating Fox News ratings on big primary nights, which I think a lot of people would be shocked to see a year ago. BOB GARFIELD: Well, I'm glad you mentioned Fox News, because more than any other cable channel they have benefited from the programming of ideology. But they're also, as a consequence, not taken especially seriously across the political spectrum as a news organization.
Does MSNBC risk the similar marginalization by attaching itself to such a partisan poster boy? BRIAN STELTER: There's definitely a concern, and I think it's more from the outside than it is from the inside at NBC, that MSNBC could be viewed as a political liability to the network and to General Electric.
We saw a big report in The Washington Post a few weeks ago about how Fox News and Bill O'Reilly have been targeting Keith Olbermann and MSNBC for a supposed left wing viewpoint, and how they've actually been going after General Electric, the parent company of NBC, as a way to put pressure on the network to quiet Keith Olbermann or tamp him down.
We saw throughout the primary season Hillary Clinton's campaign aides suggesting that MSNBC was in the tank for Obama. And no news organization wants to be perceived, rightly or wrongly, as being supportive of one particular candidate or one particular party.
So I am curious to see in the next five or six months here how MSNBC is perceived and whether these higher ratings can also come with a downside. BOB GARFIELD: Brian, thank you so much for joining us. BRIAN STELTER: Thank you. BOB GARFIELD: Brian Stelter covers television for The New York Times.
Phil Griffin is the executive in charge of MSNBC. He says Keith Olbermann's opinionation is neither the sole explanation for MSNBC's recent success nor a threat to its credibility. PHIL GRIFFIN: After the 2004 election, Keith Olbermann is basically the same guy he is today. He didn't exactly hit it out of the park in terms of ratings. Same guy, but I do think the stars began to align differently going into the midterms in 2006. People started to tune into Olbermann. The country changed. BOB GARFIELD: Olbermann has had a lot of success because he's a hammer banging a nail, and that nail is the Bush Administration. But the Bush Administration is - not long for this world. And let's just assume for a moment that Obama is elected, and let's further assume that his goals of a whole new way of conducting government are realized. There goes the nail. What happens to Keith Olbermann, and has he kind of lost his raison d'etre? PHIL GRIFFIN: I don't think so. Keith is a broader spectrum than just beating up on the Bush Administration. Keith holds the feet of power to the fire, and I assume he will continue to credit those that deserve [LAUGHS] credit and criticize those that don't.
I've encouraged, from the beginning, our anchors and our hosts to be authentic. I want their point of view, a wide range of guests. And yes, we have a couple of strong-willed people on our air right now, and I'm sure in the next few years it'll change as administrations change and as issues change. But that's what I want this station to be – a place where you have this great exchange of the ideas of the day. BOB GARFIELD: I want to ask you about the strategic risk of doing things this way, because you've got in Olbermann a guy who is, you know, in some ways the anti-O'Reilly. Is there no risk attached to contaminating the neutrality, the objectivity of someone like Brian Williams and Tim Russert? PHIL GRIFFIN: Point to one time you thought Tim Russert, Brian Williams, Tom Brokaw, Andrea Mitchell hurt themselves by being on MSNBC. They come on. They are themselves. They know who they are. They're the best journalists in the business. You point to me one time you think they may have hurt themselves by being on MSNBC. BOB GARFIELD: But in a way you haven't really answered the question because I'm asking you whether the totality of NBC News's image can be endangered if Keith Olbermann is perceived as just the O'Reilly of the left. PHIL GRIFFIN: I think the audience gets it. I think they're smart enough to figure out the roles people play. Is Chris and Keith a little different on those nights than on their shows? Totally. They've got to be. And I think we give the audience the credit. They get it.
We've had the most successful half year in MSNBC history. And Tim Russert continues to dominate on Sunday mornings, and Nightly News continues to dominate. This is a great time at NBC News.
It used to be the sort of stinky-poo MSNBC. We moved into 30 Rock. And then all of a sudden everybody at NBC News wanted to play on our channel – Brian and Tim and Andrea, down the list. And that was a first.
There are two things going on here. The news game is more and more being played on cable. Two) you get much more time in cable. When Tim Russert raised his hand and said, you know what, my voice can be heard on MSNBC during the primary seasons - the guys at ABC and CBS would love to have an opportunity that Tim has. But they don't have a place to go. He did. BOB GARFIELD: All right, Phil. Thank you very much. PHIL GRIFFIN: Hey, thanks very much. I enjoyed it. [MUSIC UP AND UNDER] BOB GARFIELD: Phil Griffin is executive in charge of MSNBC.