GE, Fox, and Clear Channel let the crazy-train roll
What happens when you get three pumpkin heads of the airwaves shouting at each other as their conglomerate parents try to rein them in? You get a whole lot of crazy! But the question is whether that is crazy as in loony bin or crazy like a fox (and I do mean with a small f here). I think the answer is crazy like a fox -- because all this media attention about the pumpkin heads and their corporate minders is good for ratings.
Which pumpkin heads? General Electric (GE) has Keith Olbermann of MSNBC, News Corp's (NWS) Fox News Channel has Bill O'Reilly and Clear Channel Communications -- which is owned by a consortium of private equity firms -- has Rush Limbaugh. Each is crazy in his own way as he seeks followers who resonate with his particular brand of anger.
And their corporate minders pay them well for the privilege. Olbermann's contract pays $7.5 million a year; O'Reilly gets the princely sum of $10 million to $12 million a year; and Limbaugh tops the bunch with $400 million through 2016 which came last July with a $100 million signing bonus.
Of course Limbaugh does have a weekly audience of nearly 20 million listeners on 600 stations. O'Reilly attracted 900,000 viewers in the 25-54 age group on August 6, 2009 while Olbermann trailed on the same day with 326,000 viewers in that age group.
Then there's that crazy factor. For example, Bill O'Reilly holds himself up as a moral paragon who lectures to everyone about how wrong they are -- but if this 2004 legal complaint is to be believed -- a little over five years ago he thought nothing of shoving a blunt object where the sun don't shine while he tele-harassed one of his female producers, Andrea Mackris.
And the beefy Rush Limbaugh -- he claims he has lost 90 pounds since March and in January said he hopes our President will fail -- reportedly used to take 30 OxyContin pills a day even after denouncing drug use on his radio show. By comparison, blowhard Olbermann -- mocked brilliantly here by Ben Affleck -- is small potatoes on the crazy-ometer.
But in the last few months, GE and News Corp. have tried to tamp down a feud between Olbermann and O'Reilly because GE's CEO, Jeff Immelt, does not appreciate O'Reilly's personal attacks. Unfortunately for Immelt, News Corp CEO Rupert Murdoch has decided he won't stop the resumption of that feud -- unleashing O'Reilly to attack Immelt for GE's payment of a $50 million fine to the SEC to settle an accounting misconduct charge.
This after Olbermann, quite rightly in my view, condemned O'Reilly colleague Glenn Beck for letting his guest assert his belief that the only hope for the U.S. is if Osama bin Laden detonates a major weapon in the U.S.
As long as Crazy pays, companies like Clear Channel, News Corp. and GE will pay people like Limbaugh, O'Reilly, and Olbermann millions of dollars each year to produce it.
Peter Cohan is president of Peter S. Cohan & Associates. He also teaches management at Babson College. His eighth book is You Can't Order Change: Lessons from Jim McNerney's Turnaround at Boeing. Follow petercohan on Twitter. He owns GE stock has no financial interest in the other securities mentioned.