Saturday, January 22, 2011

Buh-Bye Keith

We called this a few months ago...predicting that Keith Olbermann's days at MSNBC were numbered. But at the time, we thought the insufferable host might be plotting his own escape:

Olbermann is unhappy at NBC. His role on Sunday night football was eliminated this season, and he's also been banished from election coverage on the broadcast network. Meanwhile, CNN's prime-time ratings are in free fall, and their latest 8 p.m. offering, the dreadful Parker/Spitzer, is DOA. It's hardly a secret that CNN is already looking for a replacement in this time slot, and Olbermann's audience (while only a fraction of Bill O'Reilly's on FNC) would be a major improvement for the third-place cable news channel.

Unfortunately for CNN, Olbermann is currently locked into a four-year contract with MSNBC. However, violation of a network policy would give NBC an excuse to fire Olbermann, who (presumably) would surface at CNN (with a bigger contract and expanded role) in the very near future. If CNN has approached the MSNBC host (or his agent), then Olbermann may have been emboldened, believing he had nothing to lose--and maybe, a better deal to gain--if his political donations landed him in hot water. Additionally, if NBC decides to fire Olbermann, that could negate the "no compete" clause in his contract, allowing him to appear on CNN sooner, rather than later. So, there might be a method to Olbermann's latest act of madness.

Still, that reasoning would contradict our final theory, namely that the MSNBC anchor can't handle any degree of success. Over a 30-year broadcasting career, Olbermann has been fired (or walked away) from a number of plum jobs, including his most famous gig, as Dan Patrick's partner on ESPN's SportsCenter.

Indeed, Olbermann's reputation as a difficult employee is nearly as long as his resume. Fresh out of college, he was almost fired from his first sportscasting job, after telling his bosses at UPI radio service that their inept management made the network a "small time" operation. He followed that with a rocky, three-year stint at CNN, and a few months as sports anchor at Boston's WCVB-TV. Only in his mid-20's Olbermann was seemingly washed-up, out of work and living back at home with his parents in suburban New York.

Still, there were a few folks willing to take a chance on Olbermann. After stints at two TV stations in Los Angeles, he landed at ESPN, becoming part of the marquee team on SportsCenter. But Olbermann made plenty of enemies at the network; he battled with ESPN executives and subjected on-air colleagues to blistering criticism (with the exception of Dan Patrick). He left the sports channel under a cloud in 1997 and was personally fired from Fox Sports by Rupert Murdoch in 2001. A fellow sports anchor at ESPN once observed that Olbermann doesn't just burn bridges, he napalms them. When the sports channel celebrated its 25th anniversary in 2004, Olbermann was conspicuously absent from the reunion of current and former hosts--a reminder that he is still reviled in Bristol.

Six years later, he's apparently worn out his welcome again, this time at MSNBC.

As you may recall, our post was prompted by Olbermann's brief suspension from the network for making campaign contributions to several Democratic politicians--in violation of NBC policies. While some believed Olby's days were numbered, other media insiders predicted MSNBC would stick with the controversial host, since he had the highest ratings on the network. But then came Friday night's stunning announcement, as reported by the AP:

MSNBC's most successful and controversial personality for his outspoken liberal prime-time program, gave an abrupt goodbye to viewers and said Friday was his last show.

It was not immediately known if he quit or was fired. Olbermann did not address the question, and MSNBC said only that they and Olbermann had ended their contract. He signed a four-year contract two years ago.

"MSNBC thanks Keith for his integral role in MSNBC's success and we wish him well in his future endeavors," the network said in a statement.

While the reason for Olbermann's sudden departure was not immediately revealed, some believe it was related to Comcast's pending takeover of NBC, suggesting that the cable conglomerate might want more balance on the network. True, some Comcast executives have donated to the GOP, but the vast majority of their contributions have gone to Democrats. Moreover, the revamped MSNBC line-up remains exclusively liberal, so any "turn to the right" is still a ways off.

As we speculated in November, there are more likely reasons for the change. First, Comcast is extremely focused on the bottom line; the company saw little reason to pay big bucks to a host that delivered less than half the audience of his cable news competitor, Bill O'Reilly (Olbermann's last contract, signed in 2009, paid him $30 million over four years. Secondly, Mr. Olbermann probably viewed his problems at NBC as an opportunity to jump to CNN, which is looking for anything that will draw an audience at 8 pm. Finally, even the execs at NBC had grown tired of his antics and were willing to cut him loose, figuring Lawrence O'Donnell (who inherits the 8 pm slot on MSNBC) can generate similar numbers--and reduce the talent payroll, to boot.

At this point, Mr. Olbermann better hope CNN is interested. Beyond that ratings-challenged network, Olbermann has few job options right now. That anchor at ESPN pegged Olby right; he doesn't simply burn bridges, he obliterates them. Consequently, there is a long list of TV executives who hate Olbermann with a passion and will never hire him again. You can now add the folks at NBC to the list (remember: this was Olbermann's second stint at that network).

From their perspective, the TV host might be described as "The Worst Person in the World."


Corky Boyd said...

Most likely the Comcast takeover of NBC played an important part of Olbermann's departure.

Olbermann's rants were crony capitalist Jeffry Imelt's continuing gift to Obama and the Democratic party. His usefulness was over when GE was no longer in control of NBC. He was harmful to the NBC News brand, and I can't fathom any reason Comcast would want to keep him.

Usually in takeovers all top level personnel under contract are reviewed by the purchaser. The balance of any contract is considered a liabilty that affects the final closing price. Usually it is in the best interests of the selling company to resolve the issue before closing, which was done here.

Last November NBC had an opportunity to break Olbermann's contract, with no penalty, for violating the company rule of no contributions to political candidates. It appears that Olbemann's lawyers made it tough enough on GE that they backed down. The worst thing for both GE and Comcast would to be litigating the firing beyond final closing.

Olbermann was probably being honest in saying he was resigning. Likely he was told he had no future with Comcast and it would be better to negotiate a buyout on terms he deemed favorable.

Hopefully Comcast will clean up MSNBC's sleazy reputation.

Unknown said...

Corky--I believe your comments are spot-on. Since my post, another MSM article has suggested that Olbermann and his management team were pushing for a new deal with NBC and Comcast, on the heels of his recent suspension, and the cable company's take-over of the network. Talk about negotiating from a weak position. Makes you wonder if Olby and his new managers are really that stupid.

Personally, I don't think Olby's nearly as bright as he believes, but his agents are among the best in the business. As I stated in the original post, I believe Olbermann is angling for the 8 pm slot at CNN, at a much higher salary--and that network is just desperate enough to meet his demands.

A few weeks ago, the media world was abuzz with rumors that CNN's horrible "Parker-Spitzer" would be "fixed" with a new female co-host. Then, just as quickly, the rumors stopped. That would suggest the show is now doing much better in the ratings (which it isn't), or CNN already has a replacement in mind for the timeslot. Hellooo, Keith Olbermann. Sure, he has a non-compete, but it can probably be voided if NBC will allow him to go on CNN in the next six months (that will also save Comcast millions in severance pay).

One more wild card in this equation: as far as I know, Glenn Beck has not resigned with Fox News and is still operating under the original deal signed back in 2009. That deal expires in 2012. While I fully expect Beck will re-sign with Fox, both MSNBC and CNN will make a run at him for the 8 pm slot.

I fully expect Olby will surface on CNN later this year, as the replacement for Parker-Spitzer. Two or three years down the road, he'll be fired from there (again) and his career will be over for good. Mark your calendars.