Olbermann Leaves MSNBC; What He Leaves Behind

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MSNBC's highest-rated host, Keith Olbermann, announced on air Friday night that he is leaving the show that bears his name, Countdown with Keith Olbermann. NPR Media Correspondent David Folkenflik has reported on Olbermann's career and talks with host Scott Simon about his influence on MSNBC and his sometimes controversial tenure.


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

Viewers of MSNBC's "Countdown with Keith Olbermann" heard a surprise announcement last night.

Mr. KEITH OLBERMANN (Host, "Countdown with Keith Olbermann"): I think the same fantasy has popped into the head of everybody in my business who has ever been told what I've been told: That this is going to be the last edition of your show.

SIMON: With those words, Keith Olbermann, MSNBC's highest-rated host, announced that hes leaving the network.

MSNBC issued a three-sentence statement saying it had ended its contract with Mr. Olbermann, thanked him for what it called his integral role in MSNBC's success and said, we wish him well in his future endeavors.

NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik is following the story.

David, thanks for joining us.


SIMON: Did Keith Olbermann jump or was he pushed?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, you know, specifically, we don't know. What we do know is that Mr. Olbermann had an extremely contentious relationship with the executives who run MSNBC, as he has at other places, including ESPN, where he really made his national name in the past.

What he said last night in his show was simply he told viewers that, you know, quote, All thats surrounded the show was too much for me. Behind the scenes really, there had been a lot of tension and it had been accelerated by instances in which in the past the head of General Electric, the owner of NBC, had to intervene to kind of quell this ongoing on-air feud between him and Bill O'Reilly of the Fox News Channel.

And also the question last fall when Olbermann had to be punished by MSNBC President Phil Griffin for giving political contributions to several Democratic candidates for Congress. Olbermann was essentially unrepentant after his two-day suspension and returned to air making the case that opinion journalists aren't surprising anyone by having party affinities.

You know, there's one other question that's being raised by a lot of Olbermann's fans and supporters in the blogosphere and it's the question of whether the cable giant Comcast, which has just gotten regulatory approval to take over NBC and its sister networks, including MSNBC, whether Comcast had something to do with that - whether there was some political payoff. About the only thing that Comcast and NBC officials would comment on the record last night was to say that Comcast has not taken operational control of MSNBC yet and had nothing to do with the decision, that it was informed of the decision by MSNBC and NBC News officials after the fact.

SIMON: And what did Keith Olbermann and his show do for MSNBC?

FOLKENFLIK: Mr. Olbermann and his show Countdown defined MSNBC and made it into a ratings and profitable success. MSNBC had really lurched about for a defining approach since its inception in 1996. What Olbermann did, he defined it as a voice of opposition during the Bush years. He defined it as a place, much like Fox News is clearly on the right it's prime time. A place where liberals could find their concerns and voices heard in a way that hadn't been the case on cable networks. So he took it to the left and built a - you know, they built a cadre of fairly like-minded prime time opinion hosts and suddenly MSNBC shot above CNN to be the second-highest rated cable news show in the country.

SIMON: And what does MSNBC do to fill the hour now?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, theyve built the bench a lot in the last couple of years. They take Lawrence O'Donnell, whose show The Last Word, appeared later in the evening, and they're going to plug it in at 8PM, which is when Olbermann's show on the East Coast time aired. And at 10 o'clock they're taking Ed Schultz, whod been a long time radio show host, who they've been grooming and having as a host of late, and they're putting him from six o'clock up there till 10 o'clock at night.

They feel they've got a deeper bench. Theyre clearly building around Rachel Maddow, something of a protege of Mr. Olbermann's, a former Air America host on radio, who really has groomed over the years and did quite a strong presence on her own right. The real question is can she continue to get such strong ratings in the absence of the lead-in of Mr. Olbermann?

SIMON: Um-huh. And with a contract reportedly worth $30 million, presumably he doesn't have to do anything else immediately but any indication?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, not only does he not have to do anything else immediately, but under the terms of the buyout, MSNBC made it quite clear last night that he doesn't get to work for any of their television competitors. You know, he has a strong presence, he's built up a quite a following on Twitter, he could well do something in radio, he could do it on the web, or he could count his money and figure out what he wants to do next. There've been a lot of chapters in this bumpy but illustrious career.

SIMON: NPR's David Folkenflik, thanks so much.


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