John Nichols / The Nation & Howard Kurtz / The Daily Beast – 2011-01-24 00:29:53
MSNBC Drops Keith Olbermann,
As Cable Network’s Line-Up Shifts
John Nichols / The Nation
(January 21, 2011) — MSNBC announced Friday night that it was dropping Keth Olbermann , the outspoken host of the network’s top-rated show whose courageous commentaries during the Bush-Cheney years cleared a space for progressive talk on cable TV.
Ten minutes before the close of his show Friday night, the host whose willingness to highlight the high crimes and misdemeanors of George Bush and Dick Cheney electrified liberals during the darkest days of the previous administration, announced: “This will be the last edition of ‘Countdown.’  I will explain that, next.”
After a commercial break, Olbermann seemed to suggest that the decision — announced just four days before President Obama’s State of the Union Address, a major moment for cable commentators — had come as a surprise, at least to the host.
“I think the same fantasy popped into the head of everybody in my business who has ever been told what I have been told: this will be the last edition of your show,” Olbermann ruminated. “You go to the scene from the movie ‘Network,’ complete with the pajamas and the rain coat, and go off on a verbal journey of unutterable vision and you insist upon Peter Finch’s gutteral resonance and you will the viewer to go to the window, open it, stick out his head and yell. You know the rest. In the mundane world of television goodbyes, reality is laughably uncooperative.”
Quoting his hero, pioneering TV newsman Edward R. Murrow, Olbermann finished with the line: â€œGood night and good luck.”
Olbermann “Countdown” program became a favorite with progressives when the former sports commentator emerged as an ardent critic of the Bush-Cheney administration at a point when few critics of the war in Iraq and assaults on civil liberties at home had national media platforms. He remained popular as Democrats came to power in 2008 — so much so that candidate Barack Obama sat down for interview with the host. 
After Obama became president, Olbermann’s program evolved; while he sometimes split with the White House on matters of policy, much of his attention was directed at right-wing critics of the administration (from Glenn Beck to Rush Limbaugh to Sarah Palin and the Tea Partisans) who Olbermann bluntly dismissed as extremists and “worst persons in the world.”
“He was one of the few voices in the media willing to hold the Bush administration accountable and fight the right wing smears against progressives and their policies,” recalled Media Matters for America founder and CEO David Brock.
Even as Olbermann helped to brand MSNBC as an liberal alternative to the conservative Fox cable network, the edgy and uncompromising host had wranged with NBC brass — especially in recent months .
In November, Olbermann was briefly suspended after it was learned that he had made contributions to the campaigns of several Democratic political candidates. A national campaign, led by groups such as the Progressive Change Campaign Committee , supported the host. After Friday’s announcement, PCCC co-founder Adam Green said: “Keith Olbermann did real journalism and spoke truth to power during the Bush years when most reporters fell down on the job. For that, he is a hero to many Americans — including the 300,000 people who signed our BoldProgressives.org petition to put Keith back on the air last November.”
Despite that recent controversy, the Friday night announcement came as a surprise.
Here is the email from NBC-Universal in its entirety:
“STATEMENT REGARDING KEITH OLBERMANN: MSNBC and Keith Olbermann have ended their contract. The last broadcast of ‘Countdown with Keith Olbermann’ will be this evening. MSNBC thanks Keith for his integral role in MSNBC’s success and we wish him well in his future endeavors.”
There was no further explanation from the network of the decision.
Olbermann was not available for comment.
But, rest assured, this move will stir plenty of debate. The announcement regarding Olbermann came at the close of a week that saw Federal Communications Commission and the Justice Department’s anti-trust division approve the merger of Comcast and NBC. That stirred speculation about a media giant purging a progressive.MSNBC spokesman Jeremy Gaines immediately declared, “Comcast had nothing to do with this decision.”
Less than an hour after announcing that Olbermann was out, MSNBC announced evening line-up shifts that kept progressive favorites such as Rachel Maddow and Ed Schultz in prime positions.
That said, NBC and MSNBC officials were obviously aware that the Olbermann move would be controversial.
Corporations tend to release the bad news late on Friday afternoon, when most reporters are headed home. But the really bad news they save for after 8 on Friday night.
The email from MSNBC was sent at 8:02 p.m. EST.
The second email, which arrived a little before 9 p.m. EST, read:
“MSNBC PRIMETIME PROGRAM CHANGES
“THE LAST WORD WITH LAWRENCE O’DONNELL” MOVES TO 8 PM ET
“‘THE ED SHOW’ MOVES TO 10 PM ET
“NEW YORK — January 21, 2011 — Starting Monday, January 24, ‘The Last Word with Lawrence Oâ€™Donnell’ will move to 8 p.m. ET/PT and ‘The Ed Show,’ hosted by Ed Schultz, will move to 10 p.m. ET/PT on MSNBC. The announcement was made today by Phil Griffin, President of MSNBC. ‘The Rachel Maddow Show’ will continue to air live at 9 p.m. ET/PT.
“Since its debut in October 2010 at 10 p.m.ET, ‘The Last Word with Lawrence Oâ€™Donnell’ has been a strong addition to the MSNBC primetime line-up. In the forth quarter of 2010, the showâ€™s first full quarter on the air, ‘The Last Word’ ranked #2 among A25-54 and total viewers beating CNNâ€™s â€œAnderson Cooper 360â€ in all key demos and had MSNBCâ€™s strongest A25-54 performance in the 10 p.m. time period since the first quarter of 2009.
“‘The Ed Show’ launched in April 2009 at 6 p.m. ET on MSNBC. 2010 marked the best total viewer performance in the 6 p.m. ET hour ever for MSNBC, with ‘The Ed Show’ ranked #2 in both A25-54 and total viewers for the full year. ‘The Ed Show’ averaged 643,000 viewers in 2010 and 158,000 among viewers 25-54, while CNNâ€™s ‘Situation Room’ averaged 542,000 total viewers and 149,000 in the 25-54 demographic. Ed was up 8% in A25-54 and up 20% in total viewers, while CNN has dropped â€“28% in A25-54 and â€“29% in total viewers.
“Also starting Monday, Cenk Uygur, MSNBC contributor and host of the popular web show ‘The Young Turks,’ will be filling in as host of the 6 p.m ET hour.”
That’s a line-up that will appeal to progressives, says Adam Green. Yet, the PCCC co-founder adds, it would be better with Olbermann in the mix.
“The newly announced line up, including the addition of Cenk Uygur, consists of people who will undoubtedly continue Keith Olbermann’s legacy of holding power to account, ” says Green. “But there’s a gnawing feeling among many MSNBC viewers that Keith blazed the trail for these other good hosts, Keith wasn’t ready to leave yet, and an important leader is now being sidelined involuntarily.”
Posted in accordance with Title 17, Section 107, US Code, for noncommercial, educational purposes.
Keith Olbermann Quits Countdown
Howard Kurtz / The Daily Beast
(January 21, 2011) — MSNBC’s liberal crusader abruptly resigned on air Friday, ending a provocative eight-year run. Howard Kurtz on Olbermann’s career highlights and his clashes with network brass. Plus, watch Olbermannâ€™s signoff.
Keith Olbermann, the liberal crusader whose combative style put him increasingly at odds with his network bosses, resigned abruptly from MSNBC Friday.
The cable channel confirmed his unexpected departure as Olbermann was rather calmly announcing the demise of Countdown after an eight-year run that included a bitter feud with Bill O’Reilly, fiery denunciations of Republicans and occasional acknowledgements that he had gone too far.
Olbermann said he had been “told that this is the last edition of your show” and thanked his audience, saying: “My gratitude to you is boundless.” He also thanked a list of people who have worked with him, notably excluding MSNBC President Phil Griffin, whom he has known for three decades.
A knowledgeable official said the move had nothing to do with Comcast taking control of NBC next week, although the cable giant was informed when it received final federal approval for the purchase that Olbermann would be leaving the cable channel. This official described the dramatic divorce — Olbermann was about halfway through a four-year, $30 million contract — as mutual.
Olbermann, who quit MSNBC once before — in 1998, ripping his bosses in the process — almost single-handedly revived the network by leading it on a leftward march and aggressively attacking the rival operation he called Fox Noise. But his relations with top NBC and MSNBC executives sharply deteriorated when he was suspended for making donations to Democratic candidates, and they began to talk about how the channel was now on solid enough footing to survive without him.
At one point, Griffin told Olbermann’s chief negotiator, “We are at war.”
Officially, the network offered little guidance, saying in a bland statement: “MSNBC thanks Keith for his integral role in MSNBC’s success and we wish him well in his future endeavors.” A new host, former Democratic Senate staffer Lawrence O’Donnell, will move his program from 10 p.m. eastern to Olbermann’s 8 p.m. slot, with Ed Schultz moving from 6 p.m. to O’Donnell’s time period.
From Jon Stewart’s rally for sanity to the recent calls for civility after the shootings in Tucson, Olbermann has been on the defensive about his intense and sometimes incendiary style. He temporarily ended his “Worst Person in the World” segment and said that commentators, including him, should refrain from inflammatory language — even as he denounced his chief antagonists:
“If Sarah Palin, whose website put and today scrubbed bullseye targets on 20 representatives including Gabby Giffords, does not repudiate her own part in amplifying violence and violent imagery in politics, she must be dismissed from politics — she must be repudiated by the members of her own party, and if they fail to do so, each one of them must be judged to have silently defended this tactic that today proved so awfully foretelling, and they must in turn be dismissed by the responsible members of their own party….
“If Glenn Beck, who obsesses nearly as strangely as Mr. Loughner did about gold and debt and who wistfully joked about killing Michael Moore, and Bill O’Reilly, who blithely repeated ‘Tiller the Killer’ until the phrase was burned into the minds of his viewers, do not begin their next broadcasts with solemn apologies for ever turning to the death-fantasies and the dreams of bloodlust, for ever having provided just the oxygen to those deep in madness to whom violence is an acceptable solution, then those commentators and the others must be repudiated by their viewers, and by all politicians, and by sponsors, and by the networks that employ them.”
Olbermann has also gotten involved in several flame wars with little-known critics on Twitter, blocking them from his account.
But Olbermann’s departure is certain to disappoint legions of fans who viewed him as standing up to the conservative establishment. He long resisted the liberal label, saying he was radicalized by the abuses of the Bush administration and the Iraq War. “I find myself currently aligned, not in the sense of having membership, but being in the same part of the ballpark as a lot of liberals,” he told me in 2006.
Whatever his excesses, he led third-place MSNBC out of the cable wilderness to the point where it overtook CNN in prime time, boosted not only by his numbers but by those of his protÃ©gÃ©, Rachel Maddow.
Without question, he was a polarizing presence, and several NBC veterans, including Tom Brokaw, complained to network management that he was damaging MSNBC’s reputation for independence.
At a meeting with Olbermann’s representatives last September, NBC Chief Executive Jeff Zucker and NBC News President Steve Capus said that some of their clientâ€™s behavior was unacceptable and had to stop. Griffin said that Olbermann’s personal problems were affecting his work and he looked angrier on the air, eclipsing the smart and ironic anchor they had once loved.
In November, when Griffin suspended Olbermann indefinitely over the political donations, the two sides engaged in blistering negotiations over how long it would last. Olbermann’s manager, Price, warned Griffin that if the matter wasn’t resolved quickly, Olbermann would take his complaints public by accepting invitations from Good Morning America, David Letterman, and Larry King.
“If you go on GMA, I will fire Keith,” Griffin shot back.
The suspension wound up lasting just two days, and Olbermann said he was sorry for the “unnecessary drama” and “for having mistakenly violated an inconsistently applied rule” in making the $7,200 in contributions. But after years of internal warfare, Olbermann had no major allies left at 30 Rock.
There were similar backstage struggles in 2008 and 2009 when top executives tried to get Olbermann and O’Reilly to tone down their personal attacks. O’Reilly, who never mentions Olbermann by name, was assailing NBC’s parent company, General Electric, while Olbermann once imagined the fate of “a poor kid” born to a transgendered man who became pregnant, adding: “Kind of like life at home for Bill’s kids.”
The high-level talks came to include Jeffrey Immelt, chief executive of GE; Zucker; Rupert Murdoch, owner of Foxâ€™s parent company, and Fox News Chairman Roger Ailes. But every attempt at hammering out a truce broke down.
Olbermann could be his own worst enemy. After Scott Brown won the Senate race in Massachusetts last January, Olbermann called him “an irresponsible, homophobic, racist, reactionary, ex-nude model, tea-bagging supporter of violence against women and against politicians with whom he disagrees.” After Stewart criticized that rant, Olbermann said: “I have been a little over the top lately. Point taken. Sorry.”
Even during our 2006 conversation, the former sportscaster was envisioning an exit strategy: “If it gets too hot and I have to get out of the kitchen, I’ll go do sports.”
Numerous staffers at MSBNC believed it was only a matter of time before the prime-time host, who once quit ESPN, would either bolt or be pushed out. If Olbermann concluded that he would no longer have the independence he craved in the more buttoned-down Comcast era, it is unlikely that anyone in the NBC executive suites tried to talk him out of it.
Howard Kurtz is The Daily Beast’s Washington bureau chief. He also hosts CNN’s weekly media program Reliable Sources on Sundays at 11 a.m. ET. The longtime media reporter and columnist for The Washington Post, Kurtz is the author of five books.
Posted in accordance with Title 17, Section 107, US Code, for noncommercial, educational purposes.