October 17, 1997 at 04:00 AM EDT

Hey, what’s happening over there at MSNBC? The cable channel did a first-rate job covering the death of Princess Diana, but the resulting ratings increase has sent it into a tailspin of tabloidism. MSNBC latched on to the Marv Albert scandal with ferocity and currently seems to have decided that the only topic crying out for saturation coverage is the coincidental spate of crimes committed by young people against other young people.

Thank goodness there’s Keith Olbermann and his new effort, The Big Show With Keith Olbermann (MSNBC, weeknights, 8-9 p.m.), to blow some fresh hot air into the channel’s vaulted-ceiling studio. I don’t know nothin’ ’bout sports, but even I picked up on Olbermann’s variation on Lettermanesque sarcasm when he cohosted ESPN’s SportsCenter. He’s an agreeable odd duck, with the eyes and voice of Steve Allen but a wiseacre intelligence all his own. Now freed from the shackles of box scores, Olbermann is trying for a new hybrid: nighttime talk on a small budget but with post-CNN technology.

You can tell The Big Show is trying to settle on a format. The first week, there were too many interviews with disembodied heads beamed in from different locations; everyone, including the host, looked disconnected and pained. But when Olbermann gets to prod and needle warm bodies in studio chairs, the show takes off.

The opening night’s cracking-good panel featured four fine argumentative grumps — left-wing contrarian Christopher Hitchens, right-wing hit-man David Brock, why- doesn’t-everyone-realize-I’m-correct? feminist Naomi Wolf, and Boston-brawler newspaper columnist Mike Barnicle. They were all there to jaw about the prurient cynicism of the news media, precisely the thing MSNBC is starting to suffer from in the majority of its programming. Olbermann was, in effect, serving as in-house ombudsman — an ideal role for him. More dustups like this would be a good idea, Keith. B+

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