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Keith Olbermann

NEW YORK — Trying to wring some laughs out of the cancellation of a reality TV awards show, MSNBC's Keith Olbermann tries some mock honors on his nightly newscast.

Up pops a picture of Anderson Cooper. The former host of ABC's "The Mole" wins for "making the most of your 15 minutes of fame," Olbermann says.

"I wonder what he's doing these days?" he adds.

Pretty much the same thing as Keith. With their irreverent, one-hour cable news programs, Olbermann and CNN's Cooper are their networks' best hopes for reaching young viewers, although they have distinctly different ways of going after them.

Different senses of humor, too. Cooper's face scrunches up as if he's tasted a lemon when Olbermann's joke is recounted to him later.

Olbermann, the former ESPN "Sportscenter" anchorman, more obviously plays for laughs on his "Countdown" show. Cooper plays it straighter, but, well, when's the last time the White Stripes' music played when Larry King was cutting to a commercial?

"I have never once said to myself, or been in a meeting where people said, 'Let's do something to get young people to watch,' " said Cooper, whose newscast airs at 5 p.m. MST weeknights.

"If you start thinking about stuff based on what you think an amorphous group of young people want, it's a recipe for disaster," he said. "You have to go with what your gut is."

On sometimes stodgy CNN, the 36-year-old Cooper stands out — and not simply because of his striking looks, highlighted by prematurely gray hair.

If he doesn't consider himself a conduit to youth, CNN certainly does. It purposely asked that a Democratic presidential debate the network telecast last month be focused on issues of concern to young people, and installed Cooper as the moderator. During a recent forum for advertisers in New York, King turned to Cooper for insight on "what young people think" so many times it became comical.

Cooper came to CNN with an audience that grew up on him. His television career started as an international correspondent for Channel One, the newscast beamed into high schools.

His work in war-torn countries like Rwanda, Bosnia, Somalia and Burma drew the notice of ABC News, which hired him as a reporter. Cooper's experience at ABC's overnight news program — doing first-person stories like riding a public bus in Manhattan at 3 a.m. — also gave him a nose for offbeat ideas that he carried to CNN.

He covers the big stories of the day yet has also done weeklong series on sleeplessness and infidelity. The rock band R.E.M. premiered a new video on his show.

Cooper believes it isn't a sign of softness to tell stories about popular culture in a traditional newscast.

"You can't stand there in a suit and a tie and pontificate," he said. "I don't think people buy that anymore. . . . The news is serious, but you don't have to take yourself too seriously."

Cooper's "360" hasn't made many inroads in the ratings. Neither has Olbermann's "Countdown"; both are routinely crushed by popular Fox News Channel programs with Shepard Smith and Bill O'Reilly.

Yet Olbermann is quick to parse his numbers to show he has a younger audience than most news programs.

"It does indicate that what we're doing is sufficiently fast-paced and sufficiently sarcastic to compete as a television program, which is the way that people under age 40 watch television," he said.

The peripatetic Olbermann has jumped jobs so frequently that it's hard to keep track. It's his second shot at the 6 p.m. time slot on MSNBC. He left disgusted the first time after being forced to do show after show about Monica Lewinsky.

"Countdown" is a clever format that permits editorial leeway. It ends, rather than begins, with the day's biggest story.

The device also, Olbermann believes, will prevent a repeat of his first MSNBC experience of endless concentration on one story (although that belief would be sorely tested with a Michael Jackson child molestation trial).

Finally, "Countdown" is — and this is brilliant — the boss' idea. NBC News President Neal Shapiro suggested it, Olbermann said. So if the ratings indicate it isn't working, who's to blame?

The Olbermann news philosophy is to tell people a story they don't know in some original way, giving them information and maybe a laugh.

"Without humor, a sports fan is a religious fanatic," he said. "Without humor, a newscast is a terrible, depressing, unpalatable thing, and it also makes for depressing television."

A perfect example of the Olbermann style was when he interviewed several men named David Nelson for a story on how airport security personnel were singling them out for screening. Their names were so common that they were judged suspicious. It was funny, yet a telling sign of the times.

Olbermann calls "Countdown" the best show he's ever done. He's lasted eight months so far, a notable achievement for both him and notoriously trigger-happy MSNBC. "There was a certain 'movie of the week' quality to the time slot since I left," he said.

Since Olbermann is already signed up for a key role in NBC's Olympics coverage next year, MSNBC is almost compelled to give "Countdown" time to find an audience.