Politics on TV: The Obama era -- ''The O'Reilly Factor,'' ''The Daily Show,'' and ''Countdown With Keith Olbermann'' are adapting to the changing D.C. landscape

By Ken Tucker
Updated January 23, 2009 at 05:00 AM EST

Politics on TV: The Obama era

These days, if your flat-screen has been rattling against the wall, it’s probably because of the tectonic shifts in political agendas occurring on The O’Reilly Factor, Countdown With Keith Olbermann, The Rachel Maddow Show, and the new Hannity-Without-Colmes. Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity spent the Bush II era successfully conflating conservatism with patriotism, while MSNBC’s Olbermann and Maddow appealed to the Obama base by blowtorching Republican rule. Now they, like the nation’s other trusted news sources — and I mean The Daily Show With Jon Stewart, The Colbert Report, and, yes, The View — are in a tizzy of realignment.

The result? At a time when the broadcast networks are begging you to slow down and recall what happened eight months ago on Lost, these opinion/comedy news shows are where the action is: totally Jamba Juiced, wired — beaverishly busy digging up new outrages to make their verbal harangues more relentless than Jack Bauer’s latest bark at a fictional terrorist.

Olbermann and O’Reilly — the Harvey Dents of punditry, Two-Faces of bellowed justice and anger — need fresh subjects, new enemies, to keep their full-throated cries from becoming hoarse croaks. For Olbermann, the pressing issue is how soon Obama’s regime will clamp the shackles on Bush and Cheney as war criminals. (Spoiler alert: That would probably be…never.) For O’Reilly, it’s a matter of how soon Obama’s cabinet members will stand revealed as the tax-evading socialist wimps he’s already determined them to be.

Certainly no one can accuse Hannity or Maddow of copycatting their lead-ins. Where O’Reilly reddens, yells, and cuts off those who disagree with him, Hannity positively basks in the warm rancor he inspires: He’s added the ”Hate Hannity Hotline,” playing hostile voicemails on the air. And if Maddow smiles and chuckles more than the other three sourpusses, it’s probably because, being younger and more new-media savvy, she senses that mingling commentary with irony builds her a sturdy bridge between the MSNBC audience and the folks who watch Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert.

Comedy Central’s two kingpins are currently vamping until they get a fix on the new D.C. laff landscape. I’m suspicious of white guys who make fun of Aretha Franklin’s inaugural hat bow, but I really liked Colbert’s disarming Jan. 20 frankness with us: ”I know we have a deal: You watch and I scream.” It’s just that he hasn’t figured out who to scream at yet.

The bottom line is, these shows all provide storytelling frameworks for the day’s headlines. As such, they demand through-lines — plots that are at least as twisty and addictive as those on Lost or 24. And given a new president, the economy, war, and who knows what else, the now-Obama-era pundits will soon be spinning narratives of hard news so fast, they’ll spray the airwaves with more high-volume words per second than a Billy Mays OxiClean commercial.