Olbermann's split with MSNBC may have been long in the making
Saturday, January 22, 2011; 8:35 PM
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 annouce 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 Saturday 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 starting 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 Friday, Olbermann indicated that tensions with his employer had been building for a long time. "There were many occasions, particularly in the last two and a half years, where all that surrounded the show - but never the show itself - was just too much for me," he said.
His sudden exit prompted widespread suspicion of interference by Comcast Corp., 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 in order to maintain a business relationship with the company.
Over the course of his carrer, 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 diva-like behavior. While working for a TV station in Los Angeles in the late 1980s, he broke a bathroom door in anger after 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." A witty writer and a snappy presenter, Olbermann helped redefine the sports highlight show with an irreverent style and instant recall of baseball trivia (Olbermann is a member of the Society for American Baseball Research; his personal e-mail address references Fred Merkle, infamous for a decisive base-running gaffe in the 1908 season).
When Olbermann left ESPN after five and a half 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."