“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.”
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. 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.
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 this 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.”
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.