Back in August 2010, Keith Olbermann was feeling good about the impending NBC-Comcast merger. “I think this augurs well for all of us here,” he told me one afternoon in his corner office at 30 Rock, adding that Comcast is in the “television money-making business, and in fact, the cable money-making business.”
Olbermann may be feeling less sanguine now: Almost as soon as the merger was finally approved by the FCC (Comcast officially takes over on Monday) he is leaving his Countdown show and MSNBC, following ex-NBC chief Jeff Zucker (whose last day was today) out the door. Olbermann made the announcement abruptly on his show tonight, offering no reason for the departure other than that events surrounding the show were sometimes too much for him; MSNBC released a statement saying it had settled his contract. Both on and off the record, NBC executives denied any Comcast involvement in the decision (and Comcast quickly issued its own denial) but speculation instantly settled on the merger did Comcast have less tolerance for Olbermann’s antics than GE? and Zucker, who was said to be Olbermann’s protector in his many internal turf wars.
However sudden the departure was, it was not unexpected. Over much of the past year, Olbermann’s future had been a topic of discussion in the cable news industry. He had long been MSNBC’s biggest star, but the network had built a stable of pundits around him that came close to matching his success — especially protege Rachel Maddow, whose 9pm
10pm show followed Olbermann’s. Executives were further encouraged they could survive a post-Olbermann era after both Maddow and Lawrence O’Donnell nearly held his audience numbers while guest hosting Countdown.
By the midterm elections this fall, Olbermann’s famously outsized ego seemed to be catching up to him. He was a titanic personality who had left multiple TV jobs before and frequently clashed with MSNBC president Phil Griffin. Tensions ratcheted up in November, when news broke that Olbermann had donated to two Arizona Congressmen and Kentucky’s Democratic Senate candidate Jack Conway, who failed to defeat Rand Paul. Griffin suspended him, only to reverse the decision in just a few days after a highly public standoff (Griffin, a longtime friend of Olbermann’s, was not among those the host thanked in his departing statement tonight.) A “top MSNBC source” told the Times’ Brian Stelter tonight that “It’s all about what he did after the suspension.”
In the immediate future, Lawrence O’Donnell’s 10pm show will replace Olbermann at 8pm, and Ed Schulz will get the 10pm slot. Bigger questions include whether there will be more high-profile departures at MSNBC, and whether Olbermann’s exit presages a move away from the explictly liberal slant that took the network to second place in the ratings behind Fox.