"As the Spittle Flies" is nearing the end of its run.
This cable news soap opera -- a.k.a. "Countdown With Keith Olbermann" -- is alienating viewers as quickly as the angry and demanding diva has pushed away friends, family, and colleagues over the course of his tumultuous career.
When will the show end? Hard to tell. But the increasingly wild-eyed Keith is drawing rubberneckers in the same fashion as a six-car crackup beside the interstate. One media columnist observes a "creeping mania" brought on by plunging ratings and terminal jealousy. According to TV by the Numbers, the foam-at-the-mouth commentator seems determined to do to his audience what a bio-toxin does to a small town in Iowa in the recent hit zombie movie The Crazies -- empty the homes. February saw ratings plunge beneath last year's by 43% among 25-54 viewers and 29% in total viewership. At the same time, FOX News continues its "mammoth growth." Olbermann's envy of all things FOX is palpable when he does things like scream, "I loathe FOX" or allege that FOX News President Roger Ailes deliberately attempts to "[inspire] fear" in people and is out to get him.
And that's just the beginning of the rant-whimper-scream-sob-sob that daily spills from Keith's fourth-floor corner office and permeates the oh-so-Manhattan headquarters that MS-NBC shares with parent NBC. He is typical of our progressive political and media elites, whose cardinal rule is simple: I do what I want, and you do what I want.
And so he does. And when NBC executives and others seek to remind him of life's little burdens (you can't verbally abuse women in the office, you can't verbally abuse women out of the office, etc.) he sometimes hides under his desk, as progressive men are wont to do. At other times he sits, gnashing his teeth at a view across Sixth Avenue marred by a FOX News headquarters where Bill O'Reilly continues to attract viewers. How dare O'Reilly exist, whines Keith, continuing an obsession that has been variously called "creepy" and, by FOX host Greg Gutfeld, "homoerotic." The zombies have nothing on Olbermann in the rage department. Do you believe how much money Glenn Beck makes -- why, only yesterday he was second string on CNN Headline News! And Sean Hannity -- who does he think he is, some sort of cross between O'Reilly and Fabio? Can you believe that Hannity's sex appeal was an "Ask Yahoo" topic? The on-air anger sprays from the television. Crude sexual hand gestures. Crude sexual slurs. Crude sexual graphics. Meanwhile, the viewers disappear. And so Keith Olbermann continues this week to experience death by a thousand clicks, the sound of remotes switching from MS-NBC to...well, anywhere, but mostly FOX. And the rage builds. Even the Los Angeles Times, its editorial offices a haven for aging leftists sympathetic to his rants, noted his increasingly visible "frustration and anger and volume and core meltdown." Core meltdown, indeed. The rants have grown increasingly vicious and disconnected from reality, causing even long-time allies to wonder whether, in fact, Keith's mother was right: Her son may be a few pixels short of an image. Even a progressive brother-in-arms, Comedy Central's Jon Stewart, sees him as devolving into "baseless name-calling" while a growing number of NBC executives complain that he is "out of control and causing increasing problems." They see him as "a loser for the network," his increasingly erratic behavior both on and off the air "ratings poison." Ratings poison? From inside NBC? My bosses have always been out to get me, Keith has protested. Rupert Murdoch, who owns the FOX Sports network where he once worked, has dedicated much of the past decade to trying to destroy me. And name the 50-year-old man who hasn't hidden in the bathtub when an employer -- in this case, NBC -- sends a limousine to take him to work. My ratings "grew...grew...grew...grew," he shrieked last month, attempting to refute what he calls a plot by FOX-drugged conservatives who "desperately want this show to be canceled." He then showed a graphic showing the "growth of the show from Dec. 9 to Jan. 10," with ratings that "actually grew by 5% at 8 o'clock and 6 % at ten." But his audience grew in the same way that his 24-year-old girlfriend moved into his Trump Palace apartment for love, not the six-figure salary and on-air slot that NBC provides to every California coed with no experience and party-hearty internet photos. But this is the age of new media, and Nielsen ratings are readily available online. And a simple check of the weeks surrounding those dates show aggregate ratings declines ranging from 10% to almost 20%. NewsBusters took a look at his numbers and concluded that "Countdown" has been in "free-fall" since Obama's inauguration. But Keith knows, just knows that his ratings are up, just as he knows that Bill O'Reilly has his agent call the head of NBC "week after week," begging Olbermann to stop beating up on his poor client. Just as he knows that the tapes of all of his television appearances -- what he calls "recording for posterity" -- going back to his childhood will someday be worth a small fortune or, perhaps, a facility "like the Museum of Television and Radio." And that's why an NBC limo sometimes glides the seventy blocks up to Keith's Manhattan storage facility at 120th Street to deposit new recordings of his show -- every show. And why he will occasionally sit, hour after hour, watching Keith. Keith is transfixed by Keith, admits Keith: "It's that bad." But also pleasurable -- all Keith needs is Keith to enjoy himself. He did the same thing in the basement of his Connecticut home, where he lived previously: Keith enjoying Keith in "subterranean cool" was the way he put it.
So, you see, his ratings are going up, have to be going up. After all, doesn't everyone watch Keith, enjoy Keith, and savor Keith, especially alone and in the dark...or, perhaps, in the bathtub?
No, Keith will be around -- he's sure of it. After all, he's survived more hits than Al Pacino in "The Godfather Trilogy," a decade of plots by the likes of Bill O'Reilly, Rupert Murdoch, Glenn Beck, George Bush, and colleagues and bosses at NBC, to name a few of the thousands plotting against him.
He's survived, and, in fact, he's prospered. And his ratings are up...which everyone will know when Nielsen releases the real numbers. Who knows -- perhaps he'll order NBC to do a makeover of "Countdown" in time for the fall elections. New graphics, new set, and a new theme song.
Yes, definitely a new theme song, perhaps borrowed from the 1966 novelty hit of his childhood:
And they're coming to take me away Ha Ha
They're coming to take me away ho ho he he ha ha
To the funny farm where life is beautiful all the time...
Stuart H. Schwartz is on the faculty at Liberty University in Virginia.