Cabler says Friday night was last edition of 'Countdown'

Keith Olbermann has departed MSNBC, anchoring his last “Countdown” on the news network on Friday night.

“MSNBC and Keith Olbermann have ended their contract,” the network said in an announcement on Friday, but did not elaborate on a reason. Near the end of his show, Olbermann announced that his appearance would be his last.

There was immediate speculation that the top-rated Olbermann’s departure was connected to the pending takeover of NBC Universal by Comcast Corp. But MSNBC insiders strongly denied that speculation, asserting that Comcast execs had “nothing to do” with Olbermann’s departure and were informed of the decision on Tuesday after the FCC and Justice Department gave the regulatory approval to the merger of Comcast and NBC U. Discussions between Olbermann and MSNBC brass had been going on for some time, even though the anchor had at least two years to go on his existing contract.

Olbermann, one of the network’s signature stars, was briefly suspended in November after it was disclosed that he had contributed to several candidates in violation of network policy.

“MSNBC thanks Keith for his integral role in MSNBC’s success and we wish him well in his future endeavors,” the network said in a statement.

On his show, Olbermann thanked viewers and the network, as well as some colleagues, saying, “Your support and loyalty ultimately required that I keep going,” He called NBC’s Tim Russert, who died in 2008, “my greatest protector and the most indefatigable cheerleader.”

Olbermann’s show, launched in 2003, was the highest rated on the network, and was responsible in many ways for the network’s decision to program liberal personalities in primetime as a counterbalance to Fox News. Although the ratings never matched those on Fox, Olbermann became a favorite of progressives, particularly with his biting “special comments” and irreverent take on the day’s events.

Lawrence O’Donnell’s show, currently called “The Last Word,” will move to 8 p.m., while “The Ed Show” will move to 10 p.m. Cenk Uygur, a contributor to MSNBC and host of the web show “The Young Turks,” will fill in as host of the 6 p.m. hour, the network said.

On his final show, Olbermann did not go into details of what led to his departure, but did invoke the 1976 movie “Network.”

“I think the same fantasy has popped into the head of everybody in my business who has ever been told what I have been told, that this is going to be the last edition of your show,” Olbermann said. “You go directly to the scene from the movie ‘Network,’ complete with the pajamas, and the raincoat, and you go off on an existential, otherworldly journey of profundity and vision. You damn the impediments and insist upon the insurrections, and then you admit Peter Finch’s gutteral, resonant, Soooo. And you implore, you will the viewer to go to the window, open it, stick out his head and yell…well, you know the rest.”

Despite denials, speculation is likely to continue that Comcast had a role in Olbermann’s departure. It was enough for a company spokeswoman to tweet, “Comcast pledged from day deal was announced that we would not interfere with NBC Universal’s news operations. We have not and we will not.”

(Cynthia Littleton contributed to this report.)

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