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Pardon the Interruption: Keith Olbermann Returns, Swipes at MSNBC

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The first thing you notice about Countdown with Keith Olbermann is its similarity to Countdown with Keith Olbermann. Indeed—considering how tough the NBC organization has been with intellectual property with its former late-night hosts–it’s striking how much of the rhetorical office supplies Olbermann was able to walk off with to his new job on Current. There was the title; there was a Worst Persons segment; there was a Special Comment. There were hits on conservatives, and a lineup of guests agreeing with Keith Olbermann.

In other words, give or take some graphics, Olbermann–who briefly referenced his MSNBC exit with “As I was saying…”–picked up where he left off. If you were wondering whether Olbermann might take the five months off to rethink and rejuvenate the format that he had followed for eight years at MSNBC, Olbermann apparently decided it was doing just fine, thank you.

Countdown’s return began with filmmaker Michael Moore, who was there to criticize President Obama for his legal maneuvering to justify intervention in Libya, and to be the first of several like-minded guests to tell Olbermann how good it was to have him was back on the air.

The biggest differences with the MSNBC version of Countdown were cosmetic. The production level at Current is decidedly a step down, and even though the show itself was largely unchanged, the generic New York backdrop and the graphics had a 1980s-local-newscast look to them; the sound mix was erratic on the first night too, a hitch that hopefully can be improved with practice. (First-night reviews, even of transplanted shows, can only say so much about how a show will look and sound in the long term.) The most distinctive feature of the set were the archival photos on the backdrop, which ran from Martin Luther King to George W. Bush in his flight suit—a callback to Olbermann’s MSNBC glory days of mocking the “Mission Accomplished” speech.

Olbermann followed Moore with a relatively short, low-key Special Comment that served as a mission statement. “This is to be a newscast of contextualization,” he said. “And it is to be presented with a viewpoint: that the weakest citizen of this country is more important than the strongest corporation.”

TV talk hosts are successful to the extent that they can meld their personalities with their subject matter to connect with an audience. In Olbermann’s case, his political beliefs–a concern with the power of corporations in public life–sync with his work history. As documented in the recent ESPN history, Those Guys Have All the Fun–and as repeated in his later experience with MSNBC–Olbermann has always seen himself as the rebel within the Death Star, the lonely figure struggling against the wrongheaded suits. Part of his connection with the audience is his ability to turn that me-against-The-Man attitude into an us-against-the-Man call to arms, one we reiterated on Current. “We”–indicating his audience and himself–“are the last line of defense.”

The difference now, and what will make things interesting going forward, is that–although it’s still Al Gore’s network–Olbermann now to a great extent is The Man. He heads up the news operation at Current, and will be building a lineup to surround his show. After his career has so long been defined by his pushing against antagonists at his own network, who will Olbermann push against now?

For now, apparently there’s still some pushing to be done against MSNBC. One freedom Olbermann has running his news outfit is to have his show run however long he wants to, and his first night went about four minutes over. He announced on Twitter later that this would be a permanent feature (reprogram those DVRs!), and the new Countdown will be 63 minutes—a seemingly not-so-veiled attempt to take a bite out of MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow Show (which Olbermann helped bring to that network).

This move raised some complaints from followers on his Twitter feed, many of whom are also Maddow fans. Olbermann responded that this was a move against MSNBC, not Maddow personally–though he made the point, repeatedly, that Maddow had done the last five minutes of Lawrence O’Donnell’s show opposite his debut. (“I’m not mad at her.”) “It is a competition,” Olbermann tweeted. “This is not flag football.”

But the most overt slap at Olbermann’s most recent employer came from his last guest, Markos Moulitsas, ostensibly on to discuss the “GOP cult” of potential 2012 candidates. The  Daily Kos founder called his host “a national treasure” and launched into a long story in which he claimed to have been blackballed from appearing on MSNBC shows by Joe Scarborough, who Moulitsas accused of “crying” to MSNBC management after a Twitter feud with him.

It was not exactly ending on a gracious note, but as the man says, it’s not flag football. The question going ahead: will the turbulent star player be any different now that he’s the coach?