“And I’m ‘almost got sued by Comcast Rob Lowe’…”

A few months back, as the wife and I watched DVR’d TV shows on a cold winter’s eve, a funny thing happened: We stopped fast forwarding through a commercial break to watch one of the ads.

It was the latest Rob Lowe DirectTV spot at the time. But last week, DirecTV ended that campaign after Comcast objected to some of the commercials’ claims.

What made those ads so good wasn’t that they were funny enough to get you to stop skipping through a commercial break. (You can still watch them all, incidentally, on DirecTV’s YouTube channel.) When they launched last fall, the alternative Rob Lowes stayed on point; their unfortunate circumstances or ridiculous behavior tied directly to the shortcomings of cable. For example, “Creepy Rob Lowe” was “down at the rec center, watchin’ folks swim” because his cable was out:

(By the way, is Creepy Rob Low related to Joe Biden? Or a time-traveling Young Joe Biden?)

Compare that to recent entries like “Total Deadbeat Rob Lowe,” whose divorce and back alley dice games do nothing to highlight cable’s shortcomings. After loaning his car to a drifter, “Poor Decision-Making Rob Lowe” would miss his show even if he had DirecTV. The commercials were still funny, but they were becoming unfocused and non-product centered.

In other words, they were about to lose their effectiveness.

Comcast may have done DirecTV a big favor by forcing the campaign to end before it got silly.

Olbermann, Maddow, and the new faces of MSNBC

Keith Olbermann’s final “good night, and good luck” on Friday makes for an interesting media interest story.

Olbermann was a key voice of the left during the 2006 and 2008 election cycles, so he surely could have been fired for being “too liberal.”  With the Comcast/NBC merger complete, several corners of the internet were abuzz with gossip that the new parent company had something to do with the iconoclastic Olbermann being showed the door.  Or, he could just be a jerk who has a history of being fired for not getting along with coworkers.  That’s probably the most likely answer.

For years, Keith Olbermann was the face of the new MSNBC’s left-oriented opinion programming; his aggressive style countered the conservative and populist voices of Fox News with something a bit punchier than CNN’s vanilla lineup.

MSNBC hasn’t shied away from that.  They’re keeping the “Lean Forward” campaign, and their evening lineup still boasts Ed Schultz, Lawrence O’Donnell, and Rachel Maddow.  Maddow will be the lineup’s new cleanup hitter – and for MSNBC, that seems to be the best motivation for the move.

This is unscientific, but do a Google image search for Olbermann and another for Maddow.  Sure, as a liberal lightning rod, there are plenty of pictures of Olbermann designed to make him look dumb.  But as you scroll through, a pattern becomes obvious: few of his pictures, even official ones, include him smiling.  Much like the “special comments” he delivered on his program, Olbermann frequently looks stern, as if the next words out of his mouth might just be the most important in the history of the universe. (See picture above.)

Maddow, on the other hand, is smiling in most of her search results.  When delivering opinions on her show, Maddow is smug and smart-alecky, but clearly enjoys poking fun at her targets.  It’s not necessarily good-natured humor, but it’s humor.  Much like the gruff Bill O’Reilly, one can picture a calmer, non-political side of Maddow, as if she understands that the topics on her show are important, but not likely to mean the end of the world any time soon.

Public relations 101 for anyone who wants to be on TV is to smile… and keep smiling… and smile some more.  It helps the speaker relate to the viewer.  Even when discussing difficult or contentious topics, smiles go further than furrowed brows.  Maddow seems to know this, and thus is a more effective host – and, by extension, messenger of liberal ideas.

That means that the real winners in Olbermann’s dismissal are the far left activists for whom the erstwhile Countdown host was a beacon in the night of the Bush administration.  While he created a place for overt leftist thought on cable news outside the guise of objectivity, Maddow is now the better caretaker of that tradition.

Whatever the real motivations were, the result of the decision is that Maddow, and not Olbermann, is the signature voice of MSNBC as they move (or lean) forward.  That’s pretty good news for MSNBC, but it’s even better news for left-leaning activists.

3 Reasons why Conan made the right move

The internets lit up as soon as the announcement hit (which, oddly enough, happened on Dave Letterman’s birthday): Conan O’Brien is headed to TBS as soon as his contractually obligated silence is up.  The basic cable station won out over Fox, which was the place O’Brien was widely rumored to head since it was first announced that NBC was bumping him out of the 11:30 time slot. That led to some head scratching, though it makes a lot of sense for three big reasons:

1.  Turner properties offer valuable opportunities for cross-promotion. O’Brien was always positioned as the host with the younger audience, and Turner is well positioned to reach that audience. Not only does TBS airs three hours of Family Guy on Monday nights (leading right into the time slot O’Brien will occupy), but Turner’s cable properties have been at the forefront of providing television-quality online video – first with the now-defunct website SuperDeluxe and now on both TBS.com and AdultSwim.com.

The real underrated asset in this deal isn’t online though – it’s the cross-promotional opportunity with Cartoon Network, whose Adult Swim shares some of the same audience as O’Brien.  While it would appear that sets up a tough intra-company competition, that isn’t exactly the case because of the second reason TBS and O’Brien are a great fit.

2.  TBS offers time slot flexibility no other network will. This isn’t just about getting a half-hour jump on Jay Leno and Dave Letterman; Fox could offer the 11:00 p.m. time slot, too.   But after the 11:00 showing of O’Brien’s show, and the 12:00 airing of George Lopez’s program, TBS will have the 1:00 p.m. time slot to fill.

What’s going on at 1:00 a.m.?  Jimmy Fallon’s Late Night show and Craig Ferguson’s Late Late Show have moved from comedy bits into guests.  Comedy Central is replaying their 11:00-midnight programming (The Daily Show and the Colbert Report).  Adult Swim is getting into its final hour, which features shorter cartoons that aren’t as popular as Family Guy and Robot Chicken – and, let’s be honest, really target the stoner market (have you ever tried to make sense of 12 oz. Mouse?).  And remember those hypothetical college kids who media analysts claimed stayed out too late to catch O’Brien’s Tonight Show?  The 1:00 a.m. slot is a lot closer to last call.

On TBS, O’Brien could wind up with two chances to rope in an audience – so even if more people watch Leno between 11:30 and midnight, O’Brien has a better chance to snag viewers from 11:00-11:30 p.m. and 1:00-2:00 a.m., rack up big viewership numbers, and claim victory on sheer volume even while Leno wins the 11:30 time slot.

3.  TBS straddles the line between cable and network television. This is important because, for as edgy as O’Brien is credited as being, he’s quite traditional in many ways.  With a pedigree in Saturday Night Live, the Tonight Show, the Simpsons, and even Late Night, O’Brien’s signature projects have counted their runs in decades rather than seasons.

TBS is pretty much a network television station in two important ways.  First, its mix of original and syndicated programming mimic most Fox affiliates.  The big difference is that TBS is still searching for signature, cornerstone shows to build a prime time schedule around as Fox found with Married with Children in the late 1980s and the Simpsons in the early 1990s.  (Notably, Fox built a solid prime time audience but could never keep them around for late night; TBS seems to be building in the opposite direction.)  Second, TBS is nearly ubiquitous – among the most basic of basic cable stations.

At the same time, cable (even basic cable) offers some level of freedom that escapes over-the-air network television.  Being on cable at 11:00 may offer the same creative outlet as being on at 12:30 on network television, when O’Brien shined to begin with.

TBS offers these benefits with a final caveat: because it’s cable, measures of success will be different.  It will be easier to become the top-rated original program in TBS’s history than to hold that same position with Fox. After all, the difference between victory or defeat is often a matter of expectations met or missed.