By Paul Farhi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 22, 2011; 12:15 AM
Keith Olbermann, the combative left-leaning anchor of MSNBC's most popular program, "Countdown," surprised viewers Friday night by announcing that the show would be his last. Olbermann said he had been told by MSNBC that the cable network was ending his contract.
Although neither the network nor Olbermann publicly cited a reason for his abrupt departure, the relationship ran into trouble in November when MSNBC suspended Olbermann for two days for making campaign contributions to three political candidates, including Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.), who was severely wounded in a Jan. 8 shooting.
During the campaign-contribution flap, the network said it was acting under an NBC News policy that prohibits political contributions by its employees without prior approval. But Olbermann was publicly unapologetic about his behavior, expressing his disdain for MSNBC's decision when he returned to the air after his suspension - which was the culmination of several run-ins between Olbermann and MSNBC's president, Phil Griffin.
Sources at the network wouldn't discuss Olbermann's departure in detail Friday, but they shot down speculation that it was related to the pending takeover of MSNBC's parent company, NBC Universal, by Comcast, the cable and Internet giant. The takeover was approved this week by federal regulators.
Olbermann, who will turn 52 next week, has been MSNBC's star attraction since he began hosting "Countdown With Keith Olbermann" almost eight years ago - a period that largely overlaps with the presidency of the leader Olbermann so regularly pilloried, George W. Bush. The program regularly attracts more than 1 million viewers, making it the network's most popular. MSNBC re-signed him to a four-year contract two years ago, reportedly for $30 million.
Although Olbermann has never been able to close the ratings gap with another of his nemeses, Fox News Channel's Bill O'Reilly, his popularity helped prompt MSNBC to stack its prime-time lineup with left-leaning hosts, including Rachel Maddow, whose program follows the spot Olbermann used to occupy. The strategy had helped MSNBC bury the more centrist CNN for second place behind Fox in the prime-time news ratings.
Olbermann did not announce any professional plans Friday night, though he would appear to be an attractive hire for CNN, whose new program at 8 p.m., "Parker/Spitzer," has been troubled by low ratings and reported problems between its anchors, former New York governor Eliot Spitzer and Washington Post columnist Kathleen Parker.
CNN, however, has been loath to feature the kinds of fiery, partisan personalities that Fox and MSNBC have put on the air. What's more, radio and TV personalities such as Olbermann often have "non-compete" clauses in their contracts, preventing them from appearing on a competing station, often for several months.
In a terse statement, MSNBC said that it "thanks Keith for his integral role in MSNBC's success and we wish him well in his future endeavors."
In a farewell statement on the air, Olbermann offered gratitude to his viewers and thanked a series of people, including the late NBC anchor Tim Russert. He did not mention Griffin or NBC News President Steve Capus.
MSNBC said Lawrence O'Donnell, who formerly filled in for Olbermann and began hosting his own show on MSNBC at 10 p.m. in September, will take over Olbermann's 8 p.m. slot. O'Donnell will be replaced by Ed Schultz's "Ed Show" at 10. Schultz's vacated 6 p.m. slot will be filled by Cenk Uygur, who has hosted a radio and Web show called "The Young Turks."
Olbermann's show had several signature features, including his biting "Special Comment" and a daily "Worst Person in the World."
In his farewell, he referred to the movie "Network," a 1976 satire about the television business that made famous the phrase, "I'm as mad as hell and I'm not going to take this anymore."
"I think the same fantasy has popped into the head of everybody in my business who has ever been told what I have been told, that this is going to be the last edition of your show," Olbermann said. "You go directly to the scene from the movie 'Network,' complete with the pajamas, and the raincoat, and you go off on an existential, otherworldly journey of profundity and vision. You damn the impediments and insist upon the insurrections, and then you emit Peter Finch's guttural, resonant, Soooo. And you implore, you will the viewer to go to the window, open it, stick out his head and yell . . . well, you know the rest."
Olbermann has clashed with his employers many times in his television career and has hopped from network to network. He walked away as host of ESPN's "SportsCenter" in the late 1990s after five years to join the fledgling MSNBC as the host of a news program, but he tired of MSNBC's insistence that he focus on the Monica Lewinsky scandal each night.
Olbermann then left to join Fox Sports Net, where he lasted just more than two years. He was briefly employed by CNN before jumping back to MSNBC in 2003. The nearly eight years he spent at MSNBC were the longest he spent in one place in 32 years as a broadcaster.