Wanted: Left-leaning political commentator with on-air talent immense enough to excuse workplace tensions that seem to follow him at every turn.
It’s a job description Keith Olbermann isn’t likely to see anytime soon. And yet every national news operation may be asking itself right now whether he’s worth taking a chance on in the wake of his dismissal Friday from Current TV.
The particulars on the deterioration of their partnership are still emerging, though one side of the story will likely become clearer Tuesday when Olbermann appears on “Late Show with David Letterman.” The newsman already indicated ill will between himself and Current founders Al Gore and Joel Hyatt in a blistering series of Twitter messages that made clear he intends to sue.
“In due course, the truth of the ethics of Mr. Gore and Mr. Hyatt will come out,” tweeted Olbermann.
Current hasn’t said much about what led to the firing either beyond issuing a statement that vaguely hinted management wasn’t seeing eye to eye with its star attraction.
“Current was also founded on the values of respect, openness, collegiality, and loyalty to our viewers. Unfortunately these values are no longer reflected in our relationship with Keith Olbermann and we have ended it.”
The cable channel sought to quickly shift the focus to his replacement, Eliot Spitzer, who kicked off his first show in Olbermann’s 8 p.m. timeslot hours after the termination went public.
Olbermann had been on air at Current for less than a year after his equally tempestuous split with MSNBC in January 2011 following eight years with the cable news network.
If Current had any reservations about hiring Olbermann, it wasn’t evident in his compensation package. In addition to anchoring and executive producing a weeknight program, Olbermann took an unspecified equity stake in the network and took the title of chief news officer as part of a five-year deal that paid him $10 million per annum.
And yet by all accounts, the relationship between Olbermann and Current soured from the start. The anchor was displeased with shortcomings on the production side at his new company. Current brass grew frustrated with his constant absences, particularly on select evenings that were key junctures in the presidential primary season. The tensions became evident in the press as early as last December, though Current attempted to downplay the conflict.
Olbermann has built a reputation over the course of his long career for being a difficult albeit gifted news anchor. He reportedly clashed with management as a sportscaster at ESPN, where he broke through with his witty irreverence during the 1990s.
Regardless of what exactly transpired at Current, the experience will only reinforce Olbermann’s reputation as a malcontent. Whether that complicates his career prospects going forward is another matter.
On the one hand, he is a brand-name talent who is a leading light on the liberal flank of the media world, which isn’t populated with as many true stars as the conservative side. Regardless, the possibility remains that Olbermann will be judged too intractable to gamble on again.
In the 24-hour cable-news environment where he’s excelled, there are no obvious suitors. Primetime ratings leader Fox News Channel may be ideological incompatible with Olbermann, who has likely burned his bridge to MSNBC as well. CNN, which lags the other two in total viewers in primetime, has reportedly sought out Olbermann’s services before, but under different management.
In the short time Olbermann was at Current, he didn’t do much to bolster his bona fides. He averaged an audience under 200,000 viewers at the channel, far lower than he was doing at MSNBC, though that network gave him a more prominent platform.
That could lead to less traditional options, like an out-of-left-field home not unlike Current or perhaps other wings of the media world including radio or syndication. The Internet could also be a strong possibility given the success there of a man to whom Olbermann is often compared, Glenn Beck. The former Fox News personality launched GBTV, which has attracted as many 300,000 subscribers paying $10 per month for a digital-only channel with Beck as its centerpiece.
But while GBTV is projected to bring in $40 million in revenues this year, Beck isn’t getting the same big audience he had while still on cable, where he seemed to draw bigger buzz.
If Olbermann finds himself a new TV home, he just might find himself squaring off against Spitzer. The disgraced former New York governor left CNN last July after his series, “In the Arena,” was canceled after less than a year on the air including a previous incarnation of the series, “Parker/Spitzer,” in which he co-hosted with Kathleen Parker.
“I am thrilled to have the opportunity to host a show on Current TV that will provide insight into and analysis of the critical issues on the minds of Americans today,” said Spitzer.
Whether Spitzer will be any more effective in his new gig than he was in a brief stint last year on CNN’s primetime sked is a key question hanging over the future of Current.
Current struggled to find a distinct identity for years on cable before making Olbermann the flagship of a news-oriented lineup intended to provide an alternative to 24-hour nets CNN, Fox News Channel and MSNBC. His departure isn’t likely to steer the network away from that mission given the hiring of Spitzer.
“Viewpoint” will air weeknights at 8, sandwiched between “The Young Turks with Cenk Uygur” and “The War Room with Jennifer Granholm.” Current also features political commentators Bill Press and Stephanie Miller.