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Dead Tree Alert: From Oprah to Olbermann

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My column in the dead-tree issue of TIME out today looks at the return of Countdown with Keith Olbermann, not so much from a review perspective but looking at Olbermann as the latest example of a media star leveraging his or her brand. Oprah launched the OWN channel, Glenn Beck is turning his show into an online subscription network, and now Olbermann (who owns an equity stake in Current) is essentially grafting his brand onto Current’s news operation, as he builds a primetime schedule around his own show.

Obviously some of these moves are more willing than others (Katie Couric is going to own part of her talk show, after it was clear she couldn’t go on at CBS), but each is premised on the idea that celebrity brands are now what channel brands used to be: the star is the network.

Since the column went to press, by the way, there’s been more news in Olbermann-land: yesterday, the host announced that he was reversing the show’s plan to run a few minutes long into the 9 p.m. ET hour, cutting into Rachel Maddow’s show on MSNBC. On Twitter, Olbermann said the reversal was in response to fans who didn’t like being made to choose between daddy and mommy Olbermann and his former protege.

“At @current we’ll soon have a 9 PM companion commentary show to mine,” Olbermann wrote. “But in the interim there is no reason for me to be overlapping with my friend Rachel, nor to ignore the wishes of those who’ve been so loyal to both of us for so long. We’ve heard you: as of tomorrow night Countdown finishes at 9. Bonus stuff will instead go to Countdown Online. Thanks for upsiding my head on this :).” That’s the power of running the news operation: Olbermann could make the scheduling move, citing “competition,” then reverse it once it was clear it was alienating some fans.

In the meantime, Olbermann began his new Countdown with encouraging ratings numbers on the first night, though Current withheld the total ratings figures and has not released ratings for subsequent nights. Read into that what you will, but I wouldn’t overanalyze the first week of Countdown ratings. That’s not just because these things take months to settle and establish a trajectory, but because the real success of the move, over the next year or two, will be in how well Olbermann and his news department establish a primetime lineup around him, and how well the Keith-branded Current does (in ratings and buzz/influence on the larger news cycle) as a whole. Going ahead, what Olbermann does as a TV star is less interesting than what he’ll do as a TV boss.