Saturday, January 22, 2011

My Latest WTF Moment: Keith Olbermann leaves MSNBC

It was the tweet read 'round the world.

Early Friday evening, MSNBCs Countdown with Keith Olbermann began like it always does. Legendary NBC Nightly News theme music. Check. Keith's summary of stories we'll be talking about. Check. Thurber teaser? No check. Hmmmm...

That night Olbermann tweeted his show promos as usual, counting down from first to last. Then at 7:30 p.m. came a change. The tweet: @KeithOlbermann ShowPlugSupplemental: We will have a slight change in the Thurber selection tonight.

That lone tweet was the only indication something massive was about to happen. Keith Olbermann and MSNBC would part ways.

Earlier that night Olbermann announced an entirely different Thurber selection. At 6:30 Keith tweeted that the Friday nightly Thurber read would be a repeat: @KeithOlbermann ShowPlugLast: And back where we started on Fridays with Thurber: The Peacelike Mongoose.

But as the hour moved on and it drew closer to showtime, something changed. Something big enough to warrant a different Thurber with a different moral ending.

In the end, Olbermann chose Thurber with an ending that speaks to the importance of asking questions. Thurber's: The Scottie Who Knew too Much concludes with a moral: "It is better to ask some of the questions than to know all the answers."

Was the change significant? Or just a minor flux?

The moral of Peaceable Mongoose, while a repeat read for Olbermann, speaks to a mongoose who dared be different being betrayed by its peers. Instead Olbermann switched to a poem that highlights the importance of probing for a better understanding of a situation.

In the immortal words of Peter Finch, "So..."

Did Olbermann know going into the night that it would be his last? Or did something change Friday night right before his show?

In the final minutes of Countdown, Olbermann announced to his legion of nightly viewers he had been told it was his last show. He went on to recount the classic scene from Network, where Finch urges viewers to stand up and shout "I'm mad as hell, and I'm not going to take it any more..." He expressed gratitude that, unlike previous times, he had been given more than 15 seconds to say goodbye.

Reportedly Olbermann was in the midst of a $30-million, multi-year contract. But the rivalry between Olbermann and MSNBCs President Phil Griffin is no secret. Adding fuel to massive speculation, Olbermann's abrupt departure marks the anniversary of NBCs controversial yanking of Conan O'Brien's late night talk show, to-the-day. It also came within days of the controversial FCC approval of the Comcast/NBC merger.

Did Comcast have anything to do with pulling the plug? Or did the tension between Olbermann and Griffin finally reach its breaking point? Did MSNBC negotiate a non-compete clause that would keep Olbermann from taking his show to another network? Does the quick change in the moral behind the breakup give us clues?

It's better to ask some of the questions, than know all the answers.

Olbermann signed off with his traditional throwing of the night's script. But sorely missing in the closing moments was the fond banter between Olbermann and his protege -- immediately succeeding commentator, Rachel Maddow. Rachel had the night off, so viewers missed her initial reaction to Olbermann's announcement, which might have given some indication of how sudden the departure really was.

Minutes after his final sign-off MSNBC aired its regular Countdown promo, highlighting its popular, mercurial, but now suddenly departed host -- leaving viewers scratching their heads and left with an even greater sense of loss.

From Broadcasting and Cable Yearbook

Olbermann Out At MSNBC
'Countdown' host's last show was Friday
By Jon Lafayette -- Broadcasting & Cable, 1/21/2011 9:06:09 PM
Keith Olbermann, MSNBC's best-known anchor and lightening rod broadcast his final show on the network Friday.

In an on-air farewell on Countdown, Olbermann said he had been told that this was his last show, which might indicate he'd been fired by NBC Universal, which had suspended him in November for making campaign donations to Democrats. But he also said there had been times that "all that surrounded the show . . . were too much for me."

The reason for the departure was not immediately clear. "MSNBC and Keith Olbermann have ended their contract," said the network in a statement released as Olbermann went off the air. "MSNBC thanks Keith for his integral role in MSNBC's success and we wish him well in his future endeavors."

NBCU this week moved a step closer to being controlled by Comcast Corp., with the FCC approving the cable giant's transaction with General Electric, NBCU's current owner. The deal is expected to be finalized Jan. 28.

Given Olbermann's outspoken persona and his anti-establishment views, there has been speculation that Comcast would be less tolerant of his behavior on-air and behind the scenes with management.

One insider said that Comcast was informed of the deal made to terminate Olbermann's contract before it was announced, but that it was not involved in the decision.

Comcast spokeswoman Sena Fitzmaurice confirmed: "Comcast has not closed the transaction for NBC Universal and has no operational control at any of its properties including MSNBC. We pledged from the day the deal was announced that we would not interfere with NBC Universal's news operations. We have not and we will not."

An MSNBC spokesman would not comment on the situation beyond the network's statement.

Comcast said back in November it had no role in the suspension or reinstatement of Olbermann.

"Comcast is not in any way involved with decisions made currently by NBC News," the company said in a statement in November. "We have pledged that when the transaction is concluded, Comcast will abide by the same policies for NBC's news and public affairs programming that have been in place since GE acquired the company in 1986. Comcast is committed to the independence of NBC's news operations."

MSNBC had to shuffle its lineup in the wake of Olbermann's exit, a move made easier by the emergence of Rachel Maddow and Lawrence O'Donnell as anchors whose shows on some nights draw more viewers than Olbermann's program Countdown.

On Monday, The Last Word With Lawrence O'Donnell will move from 10 p.m. to 8 p.m., with The Ed Show will move from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. Countdown had been airing at 8-9 p.m. The Rachel Maddow Show remains at 9 p.m. O'Donnell will repeat at 11 p.m., replacing an Olbermann rebroadcast, and Cenk Uygur, MSNBC contributor and host of Web show "The Young Turks," will fill in as host of the 6 p.m. hour.

Olbermann helped MSNBC build viewership by taking on President George W. Bush and Fox News, attacking both with features such as "Worst Person In the World." He particularly went after Fox host Bill O'Reilly. The tension between the two hosts required high-level intervention from executives at both GE and Fox News parent News Corp.

Olbermann also created enemies inside and he was close to being fired a few times in addition to the campaign contribution issue in November. In his farewell broadcast, he thanked a large number of people, but did not include either NBC News President Steve Capus or MSNBC boss Phil Griffin.

Of Olbermann's departure, Adam Green of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee 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 petition to put Keith back on the air last November." Olbermann had donated to two candidates endorsed by Green's PAC.

"A lot of people are trying to figure out if this was truly voluntary or not, with some noting that the Comcast-NBC merger was approved by President Obama's FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski just this week," Green added. "We'll see what develops. But regardless, Keith: Good night and good luck."