Why would a cable network ditch the host of its most popular show?
Neither Mr. Olbermann nor MSNBC, which had built its left-leaning lineup around “Countdown,” gave a reason. The network said only “MSNBC and Keith Olbermann have ended their contract” and thanked him for "his integral role in MSNBC's success."
That would indicate the departure was mutual. But the timing may have come as a surprise to Olbermann, who indicated Friday he had "been told” that the show would be his last. Olbermann was about halfway through a four-year, $30 million contract.
It had been clear for some time that relations were strained between Olbermann, champion of the left and skewerer of the right, and the network. He never publicly apologized to his employer after violating an NBC News ethics policy requiring advance disclosure of any campaign contributions – though he did apologize to viewers. MSNBC suspended him without pay for two programs right after the midterm elections in November.
Olbermann had contributed $2,400 each to three campaigns: Democratic Reps. Gabrielle Giffords and Raul Grijalva, both of Arizona, and Democratic Senate candidate Jack Conway, running in Kentucky against the eventual GOP winner, Rand Paul.
Upon hearing the news of Olbermann’s sudden departure, many fans online posited that NBC Universal’s acquisition by Comcast must have had something to do with it. Some said they would cancel their Comcast service.
But MSNBC denied any connection. Jeremy Gaines, spokesman for MSNBC president Phil Griffin, “would say only that the acquisition of NBC Universal by Comcast, which received regulatory approval this week, had nothing to do with the decision,” reported USA Today.
That doesn't smell quite right to some media watchers, who describe Comcast as a conservative organization with not much tolerance for button-pushing, "mercurial" personalities such as Olbermann. Writes Forbes's Mixed Media blogger Jeff Bercovici: "My hunch: There’s a lot more to this story, and we’ll be hearing it very soon,"
The past year has certainly been a rocky one for media personalities in the news business. Several – NPR’s Juan Williams, Hearst News Service's Helen Thomas, CNN’s Rick Sanchez – were fired for making statements that their bosses and at least some of the public deemed unacceptable. Some of those dismissals show how treacherous it can be for journalists who tread the ground between straight news reporting and commentary.
Olbermann, of course, occupied no such fuzzy ground, standing unabashedly to the left of center and often taking on Fox News and direct “Countdown” competitor Bill O’Reilly of “The O’Reilly Factor.” Still, according to USA Today, “bosses at NBC had discussed trying to keep the tone of vitriol down.”
Now it’s Lawrence O’Donnell, host of MSNBC's “The Last Word with Lawrence O’Donnell,” who will go head to head with Fox’s Mr. O’Reilly in the 8 p.m. weekday time slot. A native Bostonian and a Harvard grad, Mr. O’Donnell has been with MSNBC as a political analyst since the network’s birth in 1996.
He also spent six years in Washington working for the late Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D) of New York and as chief of staff of the Senate Finance Committee. But perhaps O'Donnell's most widely recognized accomplishment is “The West Wing,” the Emmy-winning TV series for which he was a writer and executive producer.