SECAUCUS, N.J. - Keith Olbermann types with one finger.
His right pointer. Eighty words a minute. We saw.
“I taught myself at 8,” he says. “Every time I try to learn real typing, I get a little confused. I usually charge admission for people to see me.”
MSNBC doesn’t pay its liberal provocateur to type. It pays him because, almost single-handedly, he’s made the once-foundering network a serious player in the cable wars.
“Keith is MSNBC’s rock star,” says Phil Griffin, NBC News senior vice president and executive in charge of its corporate cousin. “People follow him. They believe in him.”
Well, liberals do. On “Countdown,” a newscast built around Olbermann’s acerbic wit and passionate rants, he relentlessly pounds at President Bush and Fox News Channel’s Bill O’Reilly, his nemesis at 8 EDT weeknights.
That partisan approach works. Check the numbers.
“Countdown” averaged 709,000 total viewers in the February sweeps, up a whopping 77 percent over the same period in `06, according to Nielsen Media Research. Among 25- to 54-year-old viewers, the demographic advertisers pay a premium to reach, Olbermann, 48, spiked 59 percent. He easily beat CNN’s Paula Zahn in both categories.
No wonder MSNBC just quadrupled his salary. At an estimated $4 million a year, he’s the highest-paid on-air talent at the network. As part of his new four-year deal, he’ll also do occasional essays for “NBC Nightly News” and prime-time “Countdown” specials for NBC.
On this dreary afternoon, Olbermann is sitting in his surprisingly tiny office inside the astonishingly expansive MSNBC headquarters. State-of-the-art when it was unveiled in spring `97, the facility hasn’t aged well. It feels like some obscure museum set down miles from nowhere.
By the end of the year, however, MSNBC’s 500-person staff will relocate to NBC’s Rockefeller Center digs. NBC calls it a cost-cutting move. MSNBC staffers call it a return to civilization.
Olbermann says his NBC pieces will be “briefer, tamer, yet still with a point of view. In a network setting, you don’t need as much TNT for the same yield. It’s a lower threshold.”
At 8 p.m., the biggest bang still belongs to O’Reilly. He notched 2.5 million total viewers (up 11 percent) in February, including 536,000 in the 25-to-54 group (up 17 percent).
But by responding to Olbermann’s barbs, O’Reilly has helped “Countdown” close the gap. “Keith played O’Reilly. We might as well have sent promos to Fox News, for all the attention he paid,” says Rick Kaplan, the former president of MSNBC who last week was appointed executive producer of the “CBS Evening News.” “All of a sudden, a show with millions of viewers was, in effect, promoting a show with thousands of viewers. Keith ought to send him a hunk of his check.”
Fueled by “Countdown,” MSNBC is up 40 percent in prime time this year compared to all of `06, averaging 562,000 total viewers. CNN has 900,000 (up 6 percent) and FNC, 1.9 million (up 14 percent).
Olbermann’s rants, which he quaintly labels “special comments,” are filled with sound and fury. His wrath is genuine, he says, never simulated.
Still, for inspiration, Olbermann keeps in his iPod a clip of the famous “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore” speech by Peter Finch’s crazed anchorman Howard Beale from the 1976 film “Network.”
“In madness, Beale was expressing some great truth,” he muses. “It was beautifully written, eloquent, forceful. Anger as a means of expressing truth resonates with me.”
No question, anger is part of Olbermann’s DNA. You don’t have to dig very deep to find it, either.
“My natural position is headfirst into the wind. It’s raining right in my face ... But if I sit around and think `I’m going to get angry about something,’ that’s the moment I go right down the Bill O’Reilly path.
“If it’s not organic, I don’t do it. With O’Reilly, a lot of that anger is manufactured. The longer he goes, the more he does not know the difference.”
O’Reilly has taken numerous shots on the air at NBC and its so-called liberal bias, but he doesn’t mention Olbermann by name. Olbermann says it’s because he can’t pronounce it. His boss, Griffin, says O’Reilly was ordered not to.
When asked for a response, O’Reilly “took a pass,” according to a Fox News Channel rep.
Though Olbermann denies it, some say O’Reilly has become an obsession. One example: Olbermann has highlighted O’Reilly in his daily “Worst Person in the World” segment more than 100 times since “Countdown’s” `03 launch.
To Olbermann, the feud stems from what he says are O’Reilly’s inaccuracies on his FNC show.
“He’s said crazy things, inaccurate things, divisive things,” Olbermann says. “Nobody was calling him on it. We go after him so often because he does it so often ... He just can’t say, `Hey, I made a mistake. I’m wrong.’”
Robert Thompson of Syracuse University’s Center for the Study of Popular Television says Olbermann “is much more amusing to watch, whatever your politics are.”
With Olbermann, “you get the sense that he knows you know we’re all in on the joke,” Thompson says. “O’Reilly seems so self-righteous.”
Thompson describes Olbermann’s style as “news journalism in the jazz idiom. He uses a basic set of reported news of the day, then improvises riffs on them.”
These days, Olbermann’s happier than he’s been in years, thanks to girlfriend Katy Tur, 23, a free-lance cable producer in New York.
He’s older than her father. They’ve been dating since June. She moved into his place in October - the first live-in girlfriend of Olbermann’s life.
“We’re each actually about 9,” he says. “We get along really well. In many respects, she’s much more mature than I am.”
Olbermann says he was “perfectly content in my own company.” (He lived in a single dorm room at Cornell.) Now he’s thinking about marriage and children.
Olbermann says the impediment is that Tur’s not ready, but “if I wait much longer, my kids will have to carry me to their high school graduation.”
He carved out his own career ascent, a road lined with burned bridges and scorched earth.
After five years on ESPN’s “SportsCenter,” KO abruptly left in 1997, with management steaming. He went to NBC, as an anchor for NBC Sports and launching “The Big Show” on MSNBC.
When the Monica Lewinsky scandal exploded in `98, “Big Show” morphed into the all-Lewinsky-all-the-time White House in Crisis. Olbermann said it made him so ashamed and depressed, he bugged out.
Next stop was Fox Sports, followed by commentary gigs at CNN and ABC Radio. In early `03, he returned to MSNBC for a short fill-in stint. Three days became four years.
“Keith has always had a complex relationship with management because he’s such an independent thinker,” says MSNBC’s Griffin, his “Big Show” producer.
“He’s defiant. He’s challenged authority all his life. He’s always gotten himself into predicaments. He wasn’t happy, and that made him challenge his bosses even more.”
If Olbermann were a cat, he says he’d be on his fourth life. “I’m very good at evolving. I don’t reinvent myself, I reinvent what I do and make it suited to the time I’m in.”
This time, his bosses understand that he works best on a loose leash. And that makes Keith a happy lad.
Ultimately, management has veto power over “Countdown’s” content, but it has never used it, says Bill Wolff, head of the network’s prime-time programming.
It would take a lot. “If Keith said `George Bush is the minion of the devil and we have the DNA to prove it,’ I’d probably stop it.”
Says Olbermann, “Whatever seems to operate well against the curve of life, we’ll go for.”
Olbermann ends each “Countdown” with an update on how many days have passed since “the declaration of `Mission Accomplished’ in Iraq.” He signs off with Edward R. Murrow’s “Good night, and good luck.”
Speaking of luck: Steel-cage match between Olbermann and O’Reilly, who wins?
“O’Reilly is a big, mean, tough son of a b——who’s out to kill, but I have to bet on my boy,” says MSNBC’s Wolff. “He believes in his cause.”
And he’s mad as hell.