Olbermann debuted on ESPN on Monday night, and early reviews have been largely positive. However, there's a sentiment that we saw coming when the announcement of his re-hire was initially made. There exists a segment of the population that have been so turned off by Olbermann's politics and his attitude that they're not going to give his new show even a cursory glance. And quite frankly, I don't blame them. The Olbermann brand is so toxic to some that even the mention of his name causes some viewers to tune out.
And that's a significant issue going forward: Olbermann is a divisive figure, and once he turns someone off, it's very hard to drag them back into the fold. Do you think that the people who grew to despise Olbermann during his stints with MSNBC and Current are going to forget about all of the disdain they had for him because he's working for ESPN and talking sports now?
ESPN faces a dilemma going forward with Olbermann. If Olbermann is mainly a show centered around Olbermann calling highlights, conducting unremarkable interviews, and getting to the grind with one good rant per show, where's the long-term viability of that program? By the same token, if ESPN takes the cuffs off of Olbermann (as some are hoping for) and lets him delve into more controversial sports topics, the program would probably be more entertaining, but come at the cost of potentially driving away more viewers.
In the long run, you wonder how the Olbermann experiment is going to end. Can these good vibes truly last? The viewers that want Olbermann to attack topics with his usual venom and snark will end up disappointed if he doesn't touch on anything remotely controversial. If Olbermann continues to talk about the need for holding the media accountable on the worldwide leader in "needing to be held accountable," it's going to fall flat.
On the other hand, the viewers that are giving him another chance will end up disappointed if the opposite happens and Olbermann goes on the warpath. ESPN is going to end up disappointed if either of the above happens and the ratings drop. Finally, Olbermann will be disappointed because he always gets disappointed after a while. The right balance Olbermann is seeking to strike is incredibly small given all these factors at hand.
And all of that is why Olbermann's past is going to make it hard for this show to live up to the lofty early reviews over time. If the host of this show were say, Craig Kilborn, there would be less opportunities to alienate segments of the audience. (Who really has a strong opinion on Kilborn one way or another?) What happens the first time Olbermann really unleashes on a topic or dips back into politics or gets into a fight with his employer?
Olbermann is the opposite of nearly everyone on ESPN. Finding someone with an indifferent opinion about him is a rarity. His polarizing personality is something that he's always thrived on, but it hasn't traditionally been a great fit in a neutral environment like ESPN. So far the reviews have been encouraging for Olbermann and ESPN, but can the peace be a lasting one?