'Countdown' host's contract renewed until 2011

MSNBC is putting all its faith in Keith Olbermann, who has reupped in a deal that will give the “Countdown” host additional air time on NBC’s “Nightly News” and will make him one of cable’s highest-paid news personalities.

Four-year deal, worth as much as $4 million per year with incentives, keeps Olbermann as host of “Countdown With Keith Olbermann,” MSNBC’s highest-rated show, but adds two primetime specials per year as well as periodic commentaries on NBC’s “Nightly News.”

Talks to retain MSNBC’s first breakout personality took on additional urgency over the last few months. Olbermann has a history of jumping around, from ESPN to MSNBC to Fox Sports, CNN and back to MSNBC, and the addition of network air time was a key aspect of the deal.

Like the signing of Tiki Barber earlier this week, the deal was negotiated at the highest levels of NBC Universal.

“Right up to Jeff Zucker they presented everything I could have asked for in terms of opportunities,” Olbermann said.

Olbermann developed a following over the past year as a harsh critic of the Bush Administration, especially the conduct of the war in Iraq.

“Countdown With Keith Olbermann” is MSNBC’s only primetime show that’s ahead of its CNN counterpart in the ratings. It averaged 706,000 viewers in January, up 82% from last year.

In the 8 p.m. slot, the left-leaning show serves as a political counterpoint to Fox News Channel’s highest-rated show, “The O’Reilly Factor,” which averaged nearly 2.5 million viewers in January, up 5% increase from a year earlier.

Asked if he thought that Olbermann’s reputation as a liberal firebrand would hurt “Nightly News,” NBC News prexy Steve Capus said, “I believe the viewers are sophisticated enough to know what messages are being offered to them.”

Capus said Olbermann’s contribution to “Nightly News” will be in the form of “produced essays” in the vein of what he did on the death of Pope John Paul II and during his coverage of the aftermath of Sept. 11, which won an Edward R. Murrow Award.

“He knows where to draw the line,” Capus said. “When he does commentaries on his own broadcast, they are clearly labeled as such. This is a network that also employs (conservatives) Tucker Carlson and Joe Scarborough. It’s the full spectrum of views.”

Olbermann said the details of the relationship with “Nightly News” are still being hammered out but that he expects to contribute essays about once a month.

The “Nightly News” element of Olbermann’s deal represents one of an increasing number of synergies between MSNBC and NBC News. Soon cabler and broadcaster will share space at NBC News headquarters at 30 Rock. MSNBC’s current HQ in Secaucus, N.J., is being shuttered this year in a cost-cutting move.

Olbermann’s deal puts him among the highest-paid personalities in cable news, a list that includes Bill O’Reilly, Sean Hannity, Anderson Cooper, Larry King and Chris Matthews.

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