Keith Olbermann, cable TV sports and news and a political boondoggle
MONDAY, 08 NOVEMBER 2010 09:18
BY EVAN WEINER
THE BUSINESS AND POLITICS OF SPORTS
It may be wishful thinking but when Ohio Congressman John Boehner becomes the Majority Leader of the United States House of Representatives, he will decide to tap the shoulder of whoever is the head of the committee that oversees cable TV and ask that person to hold hearings on cable TV socialism and support pro-choice for cable TV subscribers. Boehner and his Minority Leader counterpart in the US Senate, Kentucky Republican Mitch McConnell claim that they are doing the business of the American people and want to cut spending.
Here's a way to cut spending in the home.
Let the free market dictate what the true cost of a cable TV channel should be instead of burying it into a law that helps multiple systems operators and cable TV networks.
Write new legislation that will undo the 1984 Cable TV Act and give subscribers a chance to choose what they want instead of having a multiple systems operator reach deals with cable networks and throw together a basic expanded tier that includes a myriad of sports channels and news channels that very few watch yet 100 percent are supporting in a strange form of socialism — the kind that Boehner and his GOP counterparts decry.
But don't count on the Ohio Congressman or the Kentucky Senator to suggest actually holding hearings. Congress, whether it is in the hands of Democrats or Republicans, gleefully ignores the socialist set up that they signed off on in 1984 and gave to the White House for President Ronald Reagan's signature.
Cable TV subscribers provide the dollars needed for sports salaries (New Jersey cable subscribers that pay for the YES Network should see their money go to the Yankees and stay in the area, and question the legality of Major League Baseball's revenue sharing which takes money out of the area and gives it to fiscally ailing baseball teams such as the Florida Marlins.
Most New Jersey cable TV subscribers never watch the YES Network, yet they are paying for it and seeing their money go out of the market for other channels they never put on). Cable TV gives the Steinbrenner family annual big paydays. The Steinbrenners may fight the Texas Rangers to sign Cliff Lee. Texas is also stuffed with cable TV cash.
If Congress changed the cable TV law, sports would probably be in the words of economist Andrew Zimbalist "eviscerated" with cable TV money drying up. The cable TV news networks could not afford to pay the millions of dollars a year to "popular" personalities who know nothing about issues and yet pontificate as if they are global experts. That is why Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders is right in condemning General Electric-NBC's decision to suspend the former UPI, CNN, ESPN and FOX sportscaster turned political expert Keith Olbermann for contributing to three political campaigns. FOX "personalities" give money and there is no outcry from their viewers. FOX just masquerades as a so-called news operation as does MSNBC and CNN and network TV.
Truth is none of them do an adequate job informing viewers. (Keith is a smart guy but spending a lifetime reading the back of baseball cards and explaining the virtues of the 1899 Cleveland Spiders — the worst team ever in Major League Baseball — does not make him an expert on global economy, regional conflicts, the crumbling infrastructure in the country and taxation laws in the United States.)
Sanders should take it one step further.
He should call hearings in the Senate and really talk about the cable TV law that is wasting consumers' money and push for a la carte which means that subscribers just pay for what they want and let the free market dictate costs. It is a frightening thought for Rupert Murdoch and FOX, Bob Iger and Disney, Jeff Immelt and GE, the Time Warner people and CBS. But all the networks have lobbyists on the Hill to make sure Congress doesn't do anything stupid like pushing for a la carte.
Cable TV networks are using other people's money — their subscribers' — to provide money for sports and prompt up what would be considered failing "news" departments at FOX, MSNBC and CNN along with CNN's Headline News and CNBC and whatever fare Rupert Murdoch's FOX is serving up on cable.
Cable TV operators are pretty slick. They send out bills never breaking down costs. You want ESPN and FOX News Channel, you have to get something else with it and you have no choice. Of course the counter argument is that if Congress broke up the basic expanded tier and allowed a la carte, ESPN might cost $20 or more a month for those who want the network because the buy rate for the channel would slip dramatically. The same would hold true for woefully performing networks like the FOX News Channel, CNN and MSNBC. None of them reach a mass audience but a mass audience is paying for something they don't use.
Executives from Sirius/XM radio can tell you that Howard Stern never pulled in his listeners from terrestrial radio in the numbers that they thought they would get. The buy rate for Stern on a pay service was abysmal.
The Olbermann suspension is troubling although he did have a clause in his contract apparently says that NBC News employees should keep out of the political campaign fray as it "may create the appearance of a conflict of interest ... Such activities may include participation in or contributions to political campaigns."
On Friday, Politico reported Olbermann gave $2,400 apiece in late October to Kentucky candidate Jack Conway and to Arizona Reps. Raul Grijalva and Gabrielle Giffords. The donation to Grijalva came on the same day the Democratic incumbent appeared on "Countdown," according to Politico.
Olbermann's bosses at General Electric have given money to candidates forever. GE is in the news operations business whether they like it or not. NBC's new owners to be, Comcast, had Pennsylvania Senator Arlen Specter as a really good friend. Murdoch's friends included Newt Gingrich, the former Majority Leader of the United States House of Representatives. There are political operatives all over the place at FOX (Karl Rove, Sarah Palin), CNN (Elliot Spitzer), MSNBC/CNBC (Chris Matthews, Lawrence Kudlow and the former chief of staff for New York Governor Mario Cuomo, the late Tim Russert is an NBC saint far ahead of David Brinkley and Edwin Newman in the line of NBC's great newsmen.)
Let's get one thing straight. Cable TV news isn't news. It is, to use a polite term, a hodgepodge of opinions which serves as a supplement to AM talk radio in the United States. AM radio has a problem, most of AM listeners are aging and they are not being replaced and AM radio is an old medium and young people have many other ways of communication and in some instances don't own a radio.
AM talk radio does well in the ratings, even though it skews older and male, with a nasty and sardonic host complaining about the raw deal he is getting in life and the listeners should be angry to. Sam Donaldson, the ABC newsman, once told the story of his dismal tenure as a radio talk show host at WMAL in Washington because he was not angry enough. Donaldson's typical listener should have been an older white male who hated his wife, kids, job, lot in life and was looking for a friendly voice that understood his plight. Donaldson could not capture that listener. That wasn't Donaldson.
Radio news talk is a mean spirited medium that Donaldson didn't need.
(Note this columnist appeared regularly on Donaldson's ABCNewsNow show in 2005.)
The talk show genre is cheap but dishonest. The talk on cable TV news is also cheap except for expensive "talent." Beck, Hannity, Matthews, Spitzer to name a few are not news people and Larry King is nothing more than a neighborhood yenta to use a term from his old Brooklyn neighborhood. None of these people would ever be confused with Edward R. Murrow who inadvertently might have taken down "serious" journalism when he interviewed Wisconsin Republican Senator Joseph McCarthy in 1954 and helped bring down the Senator.
CBS choked after the program as CBS Chairman William Paley had no stomach anymore for real journalism — Paley had no stomach for political satire either as CBS decided the Smothers Brothers criticism of President Lyndon Johnson and the Vietnam War were too much and fired the comedy duo in 1969.
Olbermann was kind of a news reporter back in the mid 1980s when he was on the streets of New York covering sports news on CNN (labor disagreements) but he is no newsman.
The cable TV dishonesty is simple. A host, usually an older white male, screams and yells and is the omnipotent, all knowing overseer and the guests are encouraged to argue. The host comes back on and shows his minions how correct he is and then the show ends.
It doesn't matter if it is a liberal or a conservative, conflict sells ads (the news channels are getting money up front and then a second stream — ads). Congress will not bail out newspapers but they sure have bailed out cable TV news and with the 1996 Telecommunications Act signed into law by Bill Clinton, radio as the fragmented radio ownership was whittled down to two main players Clear Channel and Infinity — with both doing away with a lot of local personnel nationally and moving into radio syndication fare and loudmouth omnipresent hosts who lord over their show, with minimum wage screeners answering phones and turning the call over to the lord and master for either thumbs up or a verbal lashing and tirade designed to humiliate a caller.
This is now what passes for importance: Newsweek, another failing news entity — a weekly magazine — had Rush Limbaugh on the cover as an important pundit.
The Newsweek cover is a sad statement on how the journalism community has ceded its seat at the table in legitimate discussions. Limbaugh, a nasty and sarcastic character, is taken far too seriously. So is Glenn Beck. So is Keith Olbermann. None of them are in the same area code as Walter Cronkite, David Brinkley, Douglas Edwards or Howard K. Smith as TV journalists in the 1950s, 60s, 70s or 80s.
Radio news talk and cable TV news are intellectually dishonest and do not inform the listener/viewer. Day after day after day there are outrageous opinions that are designed to shock listeners and keep them glued to the next commercial and the extreme partisanship and it was all created by Congress and Ronald Reagan (Cable TV Act 1984 and dismantlement of the Fairness Doctrine), and Congress and Bill Clinton (1996 Telecommunications Act). None of these actions really did much in helping the democracy although the "good" hosts rake in millions.
Keith Olbermann is a lightning rod at his workplace. He is the left's answer to Bill O'Reilly, a character who seems to relish his pro wrestling-like role, of the right. Give O'Reilly his due; he is on the Daily Show with Jon Stewart and the Colbert Report and David Letterman. He knows it is all show business. He might be the only one though. But even conservatives are questioning GE's decision.
Oh, by the way: Comcast is supposed to buy out GE and eventually take over NBC. You know who will oversee the acquisition? Congress and the Federal Communications Commission.
As Don King once said, "Only in America."
Evan Weiner, the winner of the United States Sports Academy's 2010 Ronald Reagan Media Award, is an author, radio-TV commentator and speaker on "The Politics of Sports Business." He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org