Many, many words will be wasted over the coming months about Keith Olbermann. His ability to work with others, after years of flameouts at other networks, will come into question. Not 30 minutes had passed from the announcement of Olbermann new ESPN2 talk show (Olbermann, premiering Aug. 26) when Nikki Finke predicted that it'd be "a matter of time before Olbermann will self-destruct again."
Even more words will be wasted suggesting that ESPN has decided to shun its more conservative viewers by hiring Olbermann, who spent a decade as one of the leading voices on the left. Already, Breitbart Sports (yes, they have a sports division!) has taken shots at Olbermann in the wake of his hiring by saying he was "responsible for turning MSNBC into the shrill and vitriolic network that it is today and has notoriously demeaned co-workers at nearly every network that has employed him."
At some point, however, you have to ignore all that. The fact is that, as long as Keith Olbermann can keep working with people, he will produce smart, passionate television. If he is working in sports, all the better, as he knows it as well as any man working as a sportscaster. He's going to make a show out of nothing in the next 40 days, and I guarantee it'll take less time to find whatever groove it wishes to find than anything Fox Sports 1 (or ESPN, or NBC Sports Network, or CBS Sports Network, for that matter) will debut this year.
That said... is this the right show for Keith Olbermann, and is it the right show for ESPN2?
Here's what I know about late night television, simply from watching way too much of it and reading both of those Bill Carter books: the younger viewers are the thing. Jay Leno has been cancelled twice in the last decade because networks want someone who will bring in younger viewers. When it gets past 11 p.m. ET, viewers under 50 are (presumably) who's still awake and willing to listen to advertising. Adult Swim and Comedy Central (and to a lesser extent, TBS) have made it hell on the big networks, who are often finding themselves losing the battle.
I'm far from one to discriminate based on age, but let's look at the facts. Keith Olbermann is older than Jon Stewart, Jimmy Fallon, Conan O'Brien, Craig Ferguson and Stephen Colbert, all of whom have been doing this job (with a more comedy bend, though ESPN President John Skipper insists Olbermann's show will be "funny") for about a decade, or two decades in O'Brien's case. The facts are, now, that ESPN has hired a 54-year-old man whom no one under the age of 25 really remembers doing sports on a regular basis.
While Olbermann is very web savvy, and extremely popular on Twitter, you do have to wonder how he'll court that 18-49 year old audience. One suspects his younger viewers are still expecting politics, and his older viewers aren't necessarily up late to see him. In addition to that, he is a massive devotee of baseball, typically the oldest-skewing of the major sports. Will enough viewers turn away from SportsCenter or reruns of Family Guy to hear tales about the We Are Family Pirates teams or the Miracle Mets?
Let's go back to his competition, because that's important too. There's going to be a glut of sports shows when he shows up. Though ESPN mentioned in today's introductory conference call that they think people can use second-screen technology to watch both Olbermann and SportsCenter at the same time, that's obviously a bit far fetched. Not only will Keith be facing off against his old show, he'll be facing off against the fresh-faced Fox Sports Live, who have hired anchors in Jay Onrait and Dan O'Toole with their own reputation for bringing comedy to sports highlights.
A few words on the Fox Sports 1 factor: I believe ESPN when they say that they've been thinking about this and talking about it since before the network had a timeline or a definite debut. My theory, however: ESPN execs figured that there was competition coming, so hey, we might as well beef up just in case. You think you're bringing something different to 11 p.m. ET? We'll bring something different to the same hour.
Then again, if you want comedy, there's already too many options. You can watch The Daily Show or Colbert or Conan, all in the same hour on your cable dial. You can watch Adult Swim, which routinely draws some of the highest Adults 18-49 audiences. Some people are still actually watching their local news. Late night is long gone from the days when it was just Johnny Carson and David Letterman. Everybody's got a show, or they want a show. Does ESPN2 really need one?
Look, ESPN2 getting into the late night game is low-risk. Richard Deitsch reported that the network averages 341,000 viewers in the slot right now. If Olbermann can double that (682,000), come close to Conan territory (0.7 to 1.0 on a good night) in Adults 18-49, the network will probably consider the show a success. But again, I have real questions about whether those viewers exist for a show like this, even if its quality is assured.