Keith Olbermann: Paid $10 Million to Lose Viewers

Last Updated Oct 19, 2011 3:55 PM EDT

Keith Olbermann is not in the witness protection program, but he might as well be. His show on Al Gore's Current TV (America's least watched network) has lost nearly a third of its viewers in four months.

Pretty impressive result for $10 million a year. That's just his salary.

Countdown with Keith Olbermann was a major draw when it was on MSNBC. On January 21, the network took a big hit when Olbermann announced on air that that would be his last show for them. Then in June, Current launched Olbermann and Countdown.
It was no surprise that Olbermann drew a big audience for its early shows - averaging 106,000 viewers a night. Unfortunately, by August it was down to 79,000. Last month's numbers were even worse. Olbermann's average was down to 46,000 viewers and was in no danger of coming close to breaking into the top 30 cable TV news shows. None of the top 30 is all that impressive in terms of audience when judged against non-pundit TV shows. For the third quarter of this year No.1 Bill O'Reilly averaged 2.8 million viewers, while No. 30 - the 12 AM showing of Dr. Drew on HLN - had 435,000. For comparison, Charlie's Angels got 5.9 million viewers last week and a cancellation.

To be fair, even at 46,000 Olbermann is still drawing twice what Current was getting before him. Pre-Olbermann, the network was averaging about 23,000 viewers a day in 2010. That means nationwide they had fewer eyeballs than a CW affiliate does in a mid-sized city. (The 2010 numbers are the most recent because Current's audience is so small that Nielsen only tracks them when the network pays it to and even then the numbers aren't given to the public.)

This explains why these dismal numbers have Current president David Bohrman so excited about continuing to be in last place. He says the network would be "completely transformed" in the next year with new primetime shows to support Olbermann. (He might want to consider completely transforming it into something besides a TV network.)

Al Gore, Current's chairman and co-founder, is also whistling a symphony past this particular graveyard. He told Crain's New York: "We're going to be creating a lot of jobs for people who are not afraid to speak truth to power." We can only hope this isn't the former vice president's solution to the unemployment problem.

However, some people are getting good jobs at good wages. In addition to recently hiring Bohrmann, former head of CNN's Washington bureau, it has also picked up Shelley Lewis as executive vice president of programming. Lewis' previous experience includes co-creating the Air America Radio network. Well, that certainly turned out well. The network's other new employees include former MSNBC host Cenk Uygur and former Michigan governor Jennifer Granholm.

Where Current gets the money to pay these people or even stay in business is anybody's guess. Maybe they've found marketers who want to go after a very, very, very, very, select group of people.

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    Constantine von Hoffman is a freelance writer and writing coach. His work has appeared in outlets such as Harvard Business Review, NPR, Sierra magazine, Brandweek, CIO, The Boston Herald, TheStreet.com, CSO, and Boston Magazine.

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