By Paul Farhi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 23, 2011; A03
A swirl of questions Saturday surrounded political provocateur Keith Olbermann's abrupt departure from MSNBC, the network he helped transform - by dint of his fiery eloquence and on-air presence - into the left's answer to Fox News.
For all his skill as a broadcaster and his undisputed value to the network, the Olbermann quality that appeared suddenly most relevant was this: He can be difficult to work with.
Iconoclastic and mercurial, Olbermann has often clashed with his employers, condemning - sometimes quite publicly - directives with which he has disagreed. His departure fit a pattern that has marked his 32-year career. He has had frequent run-ins with his bosses, most of which resulted in Olbermann leaving a job, including an earlier flameout with MSNBC in 1998. His nearly eight years hosting "Countdown with Keith Olbermann" was by far the longest he's lasted in a job during his career as a broadcaster.
Though neither side was talking Saturday about the events that led Olbermann to announce his departure on his show Friday night, the split appeared to have been long in the making - weeks certainly, and perhaps months, given his suspension in November for campaign contributions that violated company policy.
Olbermann and MSNBC are operating under an exit agreement, the product of lengthy negotiations, that limits each side from commenting publicly, according to a person with knowledge of the discussions. The agreement also ties Olbermann to a "non-compete" provision that will prevent him from appearing on a competing TV network for an undisclosed period.
Olbermann did not return e-mails seeking comment and remained silent on Twitter, where he often voices his opinions.
In an interview Saturday, MSNBC President Phil Griffin - a frequent target of Olbermann's broadsides within MSNBC - declined to talk about the reasons for the sudden loss of his top-rated attraction. Instead, Griffin accentuated the positive, stressing that MSNBC had a deep enough talent pool to get along without Olbermann (Lawrence O'Donnell, who hosts the network's 10 p.m. program will take over Olbermann's prime 8 p.m. spot Monday).
"We're in great shape," Griffin said. ". . . I don't think we'll lose a beat." He added: "I love what we're doing, and I love what we've achieved as a network. I'm confident about our future."
But in his final show, Olbermann indicated that tensions with his employer had been building for a long time: "There were many occasions, particularly in the last 21/2 years, where all that surrounded the show - but never the show itself - was just too much for me."
His sudden exit prompted widespread suspicion of interference by Comcast, which is expected to complete its purchase of MSNBC's parent, NBC Universal, this week. Comcast denied any role in a statement Saturday, and an MSNBC spokesman also said there was no link to the acquisition, which received regulatory approval Tuesday.
One person intimate with MSNBC's management, however, said there were strong indications that the timing wasn't coincidental. With Olbermann's patron, NBC chief executive Jeff Zucker, no longer part of the company's leadership, "the timing was right" to seek the removal of the successful but difficult host and anchor, said one person familiar with the principal players who spoke on the condition of anonymity to maintain a relationship with the company.
Over the course of his career, Olbermann transformed himself into a star political commentator after achieving fame as a sports broadcaster. His skills in front the camera and behind the mike were evident early, but so was his divalike behavior. While working for a TV station in Los Angeles in the late 1980s, he broke a bathroom door in anger when the station aired a promotional segment he felt was not up to standards.
After working his way up through stations in New York, Boston and Los Angeles, Olbermann gained national prominence in the 1990s as co-host of ESPN's "SportsCenter."
When Olbermann left ESPN after five years in 1997, it was clear there were hard feelings on both sides. A network official was quoted saying at the time: "He didn't burn the bridges here; he napalmed them."