Managing feisty news anchors is a challenge for any producer, but Izzy Povich, executive producer of MSNBC's Countdown With Keith Olbermann, enjoys an unusually copasetic relationship with her star anchor.
The duo have worked together on Countdown for nearly six years, share a vision for their program and almost always agree on stories and segments. “We do stories that people are talking about,” Povich says. “We produce a news show and infuse it with opinion.” To say the least.
Their cooperation enables Povich and Olbermann to pull off a most unorthodox production schedule. Povich works a daytime shift and collaborates with Olbermann in the afternoon, but she heads home to her family well before the show's 8 p.m. broadcast.
“I don't know if she's Daytime Keith or I'm Nighttime Izzy, but it seems to work pretty well,” Olbermann says of the arrangement. Povich watches the show live from home and can get on the phone quickly if need be.
Their formula is working; Countdown is enjoying a ratings hot streak. Powered by MSNBC's primetime orientation toward left-leaning politics and a dramatic election season, the newscast notched record ratings in 2008. Among adults 25-54, the key news demographic, the ratings for Countdown soared by 85% over 2007, with an average of 471,000 viewers. The show regularly beats its competition on CNN but is a respectable No. 2 against Fox News' 8 p.m. juggernaut, The O'Reilly Factor, which has won the time slot for more than eight years.
Countdown uses a quirky format in which it runs down the day's five biggest stories, often ending with the day's biggest news. Olbermann infuses pungent opinion with segments like “The Worst Person in the World,” which occasionally features O'Reilly and Fox News' Sean Hannity.
But the color Olbermann brings to the show can also make him a management challenge. Through his career, Olbermann has worked in both sports and news, including CNN, ESPN and Fox Sports, and is known for brushes with management and sometimes fiery exits. He is also regarded as a bright and thoughtful anchor and writer.
It falls on Povich to manage the unusual show and its star. Nearly two decades spent producing in news and syndication have prepared her well for the job. A Queens native, Povich graduated from Cornell University (also Olbermann's alma mater) in 1989 and interned at PBS and MTV. She landed her first TV production job in 1990 at NBC's flagship WNBC New York.
Povich moved on to be a producer for The Maury Povich Show, where she met her husband, Andrew, who is Maury Povich's nephew. After four years, she jumped to CBS' failed Day and Date. In December 1996, Povich joined fledgling MSNBC, which had launched just six months before.
In a dozen years there, Povich has climbed the ranks. Her first assignment was as a booker and producer on NBC News@Issue, which focused on the day's top story. Povich went on to be a senior producer in the central booking unit. Later, she produced MSNBC shows including Homepage and Newsfront.
In 2002, Povich joined Ashleigh Banfield on Location, the post-Sept. 11 show where Banfield hopscotched to new hot spots across the globe for each broadcast. As senior producer, Povich was the No. 2 exec on the show, and managed the show's bookings and movements from MSNBC's New Jersey headquarters. (Povich was on maternity leave during the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and the weeks following.)
Povich joined Countdown at startup in 2003 as the show's second-ranking producer, managing day-to-day production. In February 2004, Povich landed her first executive-producer job supervising Countdown. The show had had three interim producers, and Olbermann says Povich brought stability to the staff. “There basically was nobody at MSNBC or in NBC News who hadn't worked with her at some point and…hadn't relished the opportunity,” he says.
(Povich and Olbermann had actually first “worked” together years before. Olbermann, then a young CNN sports reporter, interviewed a 12-year-old Povich outside Yankee Stadium for a story on Reggie Jackson's return to the Yankees.)
Through the years, MSNBC has struggled to find its place against CNN and Fox News, but Povich has enjoyed the ride: “We went through so many shows and so many incarnations, it was never boring. “Most people in TV work on shows that get cancelled and they go somewhere else. I've just done that in the same place.”
Still, she admits MSNBC's years as the ratings laggard have been frustrating. “An old boss used to say that cable news is like a knife fight every night for ratings,” she says. “I don't like losing.”
But with last year's wild primary season and general presidential election, MSNBC finally got a chance to find an identity—one that stuck with viewers. In primetime, viewers flocked to hosts like Olbermann and former Air America radio host Rachel Maddow, who offer both opinion and the day's news, but from a perspective that leans to the left. In 2008, MSNBC's weekday primetime ratings jumped 100%, with an average of 1.1 million total viewers and 418,000 adults 25-54.
“The way that cable has become, you need more than just news of the day; you need to be opinion and entertainment,” Povich says. “You have to give people more than straight hardcore news.”
But with competition from CNN's Campbell Brown and O'Reilly at 8 p.m., Povich knows the struggle for viewers will always be fierce. Also, she says, people will scrutinize MSNBC as the Obama administration takes power to see if the network is softer on a Democratic government than it was on the conservative Bush administration.
“The reality is we are going to have to adjust,” she says. “But we call bullshit when it needs to be called on anybody. People say MSNBC is the Obama network, but we will hold people's feet to the fire.”
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