Mark J. Terrill/AP/File
In this photo, Keith Olbermann poses at the Ronald Reagan Library in Simi Valley, Calif.

Keith Olbermann: the cautionary tale of why he was fired, again

Keith Olbermann has added yet another acrimonious exit to his résumé. He tells David Letterman: 'You're always telling me how big my head is.' Media experts agree his problems are self-made. 

This just in from the “cautionary tales from the media” department – lessons from the now former Current TV talk show host, Keith Olbermann’s appearance Tuesday night on "The Late Show with David Letterman." The salient narrative emerged when the also former MSNBC talk show host went – how shall we say? – architectural. He was explaining to the late-night host what went wrong with his less-than-a-year stint at Al Gore’s television network.

“Just walking around with a $10 million chandelier isn't going to do anybody a lot of good, and it's not going to do any good to the chandelier," he explained, adding, “And then it turned out we didn't have a lot to put the house on, to put the chandelier in, or a building permit, and I should have known that."

"You're the chandelier?" Mr. Letterman said.

Now, there is a certain order to the way things play out when media marriages go bad. But if even Letterman – who is usually a pretty quick study – has to clarify what the heck a guest is talking about, then Mr. Olbermann needs some pointers on which playbook he is actually in, say some observers of this latest public divorce.

“I  wouldn’t compare him to a $10 million chandelier,” says Jason Maloni, senior vice president at Levick Strategic Communications in Washington.The better comparison would be former NFL player Terrell Owens, he adds. “Charlie Sheen comes to mind as well.” All these figures have plenty of talent, he says, but like Mr. Owens, “ultimately, the head coaches just decide they are not worth the trouble of their huge demands and egos.”

To be fair, Olbermann did acknowledge that a high self-assessment may have figured in his departure. "You're always telling me how big my head is," Olbermann told Letterman.

This is not the first time a high-profile media figure has stepped down to a much, em, smaller house. Think Conan O’Brien heading off to the Turner Broadcasting System's cable channel after losing the tussle for "The Tonight Show" job on NBC. Dan Rather exited CBS Evening News, and has landed on HDNet, a venue that defies most efforts to locate it on a TV system. And there are plenty of others from former NBC Nightly News anchor Tom Brokaw to Ted Koppel of "Nightline."

But none of these figures have turned into serial outlet hoppers. Olbermann, on the other hand, is developing quite a track record of rancorous departures. 

“His problems are self-made,” says Mr. Maloni, adding, “he needs to start accepting some responsibility for these troubles and show some humility.”

Some supporters suggest there is more to the bumpy trajectory of this host’s career. “Olbermann is obviously a difficult employee,” says Jeff Cohen, associate professor of journalism at Ithaca College in New York, via e-mail. “But he’s also a special talent – smart and funny – who offers riveting TV. That’s why, after public blowups at numerous TV channels, he has kept being rehired,” he says.

Mr. Cohen worked at MSNBC just before Olbermann was re-hired in 2003. Some of his early problems with management at MSNBC, he says, “were political; the suits didn’t want him criticizing President Bush or offering his progressive views. But Olbermann persevered, and ultimately proved that there was a sizable community out there who wanted a channel offering counterprogramming to Fox News. Olbermann is gone from MSNBC, but he sure left his mark on that channel – and he’s the individual most responsible for MSNBC surpassing CNN in viewership.”

But his ratings slide at Current seems to show he has turned off some former supporters with his attitudes. He debuted with 354,000 viewers on average, on Current TV. By the first quarter 2012 according to AdWeek, the show was "one of the least watched channels on TV," with 58,000 viewers in prime time.

“I really liked him when he went after elected officials who I didn't like, until he went after officials who I like,” says Mary Ellen Bachunis, a political science professor at La Salle University in Philadelphia, via e-mail. She adds: "I thought he was brutal, and my eyes were opened.” 

She says this is not the political discourse she wants to encourage. "I don't want us to denigrate our opponents. This isn't Nixon's 'enemy list.' I want civil political discourse.”

When Letterman asked Olbermann what he intended to do now, he said simply, “I’m going to go home.” The moral of this story then might be that after trashing all your former homes, you need to ensure you have the money to build your own – something Olbermann will certainly have if he prevails in his  reported $40 million lawsuit against Current.

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