Keith Olbermann and MSNBC: Why It’s Time for a Reunion

Keith Olbermann and MSNBC: In Hindsight,
Courtesy of ESPN

Occasionally, a breakup proves a big mistake for both parties. Witness the strange case of MSNBC and Keith Olbermann.

The struggling cable network and the well-traveled host have both been back in the headlines – him, as of today, with official word that his contract won’t be extended at ESPN; and MSNBC with the news that Brian Williams will land there, giving the NBC News anchor a second chance on the company’s second-tier network.

While their relationship was often rancorous, Olbermann’s lengthy and biting commentary not only branded and defined MSNBC but set the channel on its current course. Indeed, the NBC-owned network’s entire lineup of primetime hosts – Rachel Maddow, Lawrence O’Donnell, Chris Hayes – were essentially spun out of Olbermann’s ribs, as management sought to build on Olbermann’s success by becoming a liberal counterweight to Fox News Channel.

For his part, Olbermann enjoyed both considerable freedom and the opportunity to weigh in on a wide variety of issues, a sense of latitude that suited his eclectic background and tastes. That included his frequent barbs at Fox and particularly time-period rival Bill O’Reilly, which created zesty fodder for the feud-happy media.

Since leaving MSNBC, however, Olbermann hasn’t exactly found particularly hospitable homes, even if the salaries were, admittedly, quite nice. He regularly chafed at the amateurishness of Current TV, since rechristened Al Jazeera America; and never found his groove at ESPN, which began by scheduling his show at a time when it was frequently delayed by live coverage that ran over its allotted window, pushing him into the wee hours of the evening.

Moreover, Olbermann’s confrontational style at times felt like an awkward fit on ESPN, including his habit of engaging in Twitter tit-for-tat with random users, which earned him a suspension earlier this year. Perhaps foremost, his interest in connecting the games to real-world issues tended to clash with a lineup of analysts far more comfortable arguing about trade deadlines and X’s and O’s, and a fanbase prone to similar priorities – folks who just want to know how their team is faring in the playoff hunt, not the sports version of “Face the Nation.”

ESPN does engage in some first-rate journalism, but the truth is those impulses are always balanced against the fact that the sports leagues the channel covers are also its most important business partners. And with his acerbic commentaries regarding such juggernauts as the NFL, Olbermann was both doing his job and biting the hand that feeds him.

Olbermann is obviously a polarizing figure, but he’s too marketable a talent to stay on the sidelines for long, unless he chooses to do so. The real question is where he can find another platform that provides him the elbow room he needs to operate and that’s desperate enough to absorb the headaches historically associated with hiring him.

Of course, when you think about it that way, it’s hard to imagine a more logical home for Olbermann than (gulp) MSNBC, which has never fully recovered from losing him. Granted, such a reunion would certainly establish the host and his former network as a sort-of TV version of Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor. Yet while those two might not have been a match made in heaven, for all the histrionics and fireworks, when all was said and done, they just sort of belonged together.

Put another way, a bit of wisdom from the late agent and producer Pat Faulstich comes to mind — one that pointed out we often don’t appreciate a job until after we’ve left it. In Hollywood, he once said, “The best job you’ll ever have is the one that precedes the one you always wanted.”

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  1. Audrey Dlugosz says:

    I sure hope so. I watched Keith on MSNBC every night.

  2. JR says:

    We could really use the tongue lashings he used to deliver in his “Special Comment” section in response to the GOP race.

  3. Laura Johnson says:

    Please please please bring Keith back. Msnbc has only gone downhill since he left.

  4. Patricia O'Neill says:

    Have been hoping and praying you would return! We miss your viewpoint and delightful wit! Please make it soon.., and include Bruno Bash!

  5. D. Dujon says:

    the author is right oberman put msnbc on the map he should go back especially since they’ve purged a lot of their on air personalies

  6. Mike Kious says:

    Get this through your fuzzy little head. Bill O’Reilly has never mentioned Keith Olbermann by name. Do you freaking understand that or are you just too stupid. Let me say it again. Bill O’Reilly has never mentioned the name “Keith Olbermann.” Understand yet? There is no feud. Can’t be. It’s only an obsession, which is a one-way feud, and the man obsessed is K.O.

  7. chuck lester says:

    He tells it like it is. This country needs Keith doing the news. I have not watched a full news program since he left MSNBC. George Carlin called countdown “the best news show ever”

  8. Susan Seitz says:

    please please please give Keith his job back

  9. When Olbermann disappeared, I was in a coma. I had had a Hemorrhagic Stroke, which is defined by the sudden and unexpected bursting open of a main artery in your skull, from a weakness generally there from birth, allowing an unstoppable bleed between your brain and your skull. There is VERY LITTLE room in that space, on purpose. So, this was not a standard stroke, Hemorrhagic Strokes are near universally utterly deadly.

    I was in a coma, and on machines to make me breath, and to make my heart beat. I was in that condition for 3 months, and hospitalized for over 6. When I was allowed to go home, I had essentially beaten a death determination, as survival statistics for Hemorrhagic Strokes are around 7%, period. Once home though, I remembered very little. I remembered my German Shepherd, my husband, and Olbermann oddly. Watched him religiously every night before the stroke, and after, went looking for him again. He was gone, word of him was gone, TV guide type listings for him were gone, etc. I still was not thinking clearly, for nearly 3 years after getting home, so took me some time to find out that he WAS real, and where he’d went.

    Broke my heart. I know he was difficult, that he was troublesome, that he was stuck up, that he was “full of himself”, etc. Didn’t matter. I didn’t have to deal with him on a personal level, so those things were not really of interest to me. Who I had to deal with, and that only peripherally, was the man who reported, the man who got angry, the man who knew more then I ever did, lifetime, and I was considered upper 1 percentile intelligence pre-stroke. LOVED that guy. He gave me a base, every night, and listening to him was magic.

    I do hope he comes back, and I do hope they give him no real conditions… Let him be him. He’s worth it.

  10. I have never been able to get it into my head that KO will never return. I stopped watching MSNBC all together shortly after he left. The way Rachel handled the entire matter left a very bad taste in my mouth, especially considering she owes her career to him. But the larger reason was just…meh. Meh. That one word describes MSNBC since Keith left. There is no one like him. He is a unique broadcast talent. I keep telling my bf, I believe Keith will be back, whether to MSNBC or HBO, but he’ll be back. My bf keeps giving me reasons why I’m wrong. HBO doesn’t really do news, Oliver only has a 30 min show once a week. MSNBC is owned by Comcast and they’ll never give Keith the freedom he wants (and I want as a viewer). And yet I still believe, he’ll be back. Delusional? Now we have a perfect set of circumstances. MSNBC has tanked since he left, and ESPN stupidly let him go and didn’t give him the timeslot he would have owned. I suspect the PTB there were afraid of his gaining too much power, who knows. It doesn’t matter. Circumstances have conspired. My bf says I’m still living in a fantasy world. I don’t care, every time I hear Trump I think of what I’m missing not having Keith. What he would do with Trump’s stuff. “Trump is the best for women!” Sigh.

  11. Vicki says:

    MSNBC made a huge mistake in letting Keith go. Keith made a terrible mistake in leaving. Have we all had enough time to realize you need each other and your viewers need you to kiss and make up?

    We’re losing Jon Stewart, for God’s sake, give us something to look forward to!

  12. Pat says:

    MSNBC really needs him and I for one would dvr his show every night. I love Rachel and Mathews but Keith was always my favorite. I will admit that Fox News gets way under my skin and the humor that Keith used helped me not go ape shit every time I saw what they were doing. Obviously msnbc is having a major problem with ratings and they need to fix it. My two cents is this. Keith has a ton of money now, so take a lot less and go back to msnbc. Compromise on the money and they can compromise on the amount of power you have. I want to see the smirks and hear his clever and humorous commentary on the republican field.
    As far as msnbc goes, but t couldn’t hurt.

  13. I’d prefer that Keith went to Free Speech TV where he could say what he wants (no commercials either). When Comcast took over I knew that they would get rid of Keith. In fact I wrote MSNBC and said just that. Unfortunately, I was right. They also dropped Martin Bashir for insulting Palin. Palin, the person who insults everyone! Wherever he goes, I’ll follow him.

  14. T'omm J'Onzz says:

    i stopped watching MSNBC a while after Olbermann’s departure. it wasn’t the sole reason, but it was probably part of it: i felt Maddow had become disingenuous, O’Donnell’s interview with mayoral candidate Anthony Weiner didn’t sit well with me (plus they had a show called “The Last Word” at the /start/ of prime-time), they moved Ed Shultz out of early evening, (Hayes was always lackluster, and doesn’t feel suited to primetime), … if MSNBC signed on Olbermann again (and vice versa), i’d watch at least his show.

  15. Mr. BillyHounddog says:

    Olberman was good, but I thought he was in meltdown when he left. I was glad he left as I could not sit and watch him read, for about the last 3 weeks, Peter Cottontail, or whatever he was reading killing time on his show. It was pitiful, for whatever reason he was doing it …

  16. mark says:

    Keith was the most compelling, interesting of all the MSNBC hosts…..Yes! MSNBC should replace the wimpy, colorless Chris Isaacs, with Olbermann….and the best candidate to take on the lying,”hate-mon gers”, at Fox…ie…”O’Reilly, Hannity, et al. And with election year at hand, he’d attract the ratings, and create a fresh, energetic voice and opinion…..AND attract a huge audience!

  17. WAM says:

    Olbermann is an egomaniac who treated everyone, not matter where he worked, like dirt. He should live off his money saved and stay off TV. He’s got a great face for radio though.

  18. S. L. Kotar says:

    There is nothing in the world I would like better than to see Keith back at MSNBC – although I hate to think he would revive the network when they deserve to suffer from firing him in the first place. Keith IS the voice of liberal America and no one has ever come close to taking his place. I might even turn the TV on again!

  19. Isaac says:

    Liberals just love wealth middle aged white men who tell them what they want to hear.

    • T'omm J'Onzz says:

      as much as conservatives love to ego defense mechanisms; Projection, for example.

    • That is some unhealthy projection going on there.

    • Donald Incardona says:

      you are kidding???? it’s the right that gives all the tax breaks to wealthy people at the expense of the country. the right get’s most of wall streets money. do you live in some bizzaro universe? are you on crack? what an untterly stupid thing to say. and the gop admits they favor the rich.

      • Jose Roth says:

        Donald,

        You have no idea what you’re writing about. Please educate yourself before you embarrass yourself and the rest of us on the Democratic side of the aisle.

      • Donald Incardona says:

        ok then explain this to me. i watch congressional votes, what the candidates say and what the republican voters say to pollsters. so you tell me your side .

  20. IT 2 IT says:

    ‘PUNN’D —-IT’

    WITHOUT an AUDIENCE.

  21. It,s true Keith Olbermann departure was a big mistake own MSNBC ! The Man refused to Lie too the American People about Bush and Chenny ? Wars ..

  22. Pat Leary says:

    Exactly right — msnbc’s ratings have tanked since Olbermann’s departure, its editorial content obsessively focussed on a single issue for weeks, to the exclusion of all other current news, alternately drifting to cultural puff pieces according to whatever suited the personal whims of the hosts. Great guests are regularly talked over by the pontificating hosts. Rachel Maddow is so in love with her own wit that she takes 20 minutes of rambling to make a point that could’ve been made in three. Olbermann, by contrast, was fierce, incisive, courageous, and said exactly what needed to be said, like no one else could, about the top news of the day. He got us through the George W. Bush years. He was the voice of our democracy. Losing that voice to sports was tragic loss to the nation. The loss of his passion and intelligence created a hole not only at MSNBC but in the national discourse writ large. He must come back, and if MSNBC has any business or journalistic sense at all, or real desire to be a credible counterweight to the right, it will do anything to get him to return.

  23. goatsandmonkeys says:

    Hell yes. Unfortunately, NBC is ingrown and political, with not a lot of savvy.

    • Maggie says:

      I really hope that Keith Olbermann goes back to MSNBC. It hasn’t been the same since he left.

      • Wanda Hurst says:

        Let’s start a campaign to bring Keith Olbermann back to MSNBC!! I’m sure there are enough people on his side to make this happen!!!

  24. Just for the hell of it, Fox should offer Keith an opportunity to say stick it.

  25. DJ98 says:

    MSNBC? A test pattern would get better ratings.

  26. 1favored says:

    Luv him…Would go back to watching MSNBC in a heart beat!!!

  27. Sean Kennedy says:

    Most arrogant, know it all, disrespectful prime time host to callers in the history of TV. Smart move Disney!!

  28. Xmasevebaby says:

    Please come back to MSNBC, sir….pretty please? I’d like nothing more than to see Keith doing his damn thing once again on a network that sorely needs him, especially with the 2016 Elections ramping up.

  29. dji says:

    well i think olbermann should be brought back to MSNBC and take over for chris hays. hayes is a ratings suck and very boring. olbermann would fire up the network and they need it. flame away right wingers.

    • Cath says:

      I’ll second that and Hayes could go back to Saturday mornings where he belongs. “Up” was a better show with him.

      • Donald Incardona says:

        well steve kornacki is doing better than hayes did on saturday & sunday. so no he can’t go there.

  30. hespacking says:

    he’d be right at home with lying brian and race baiting al

  31. Jerry says:

    Wow. Terrible idea. The reason that MSNBC is floundering is because there’s a dem in the White House.

    It’ll be fine if the GOP returns.

    KO is unhinged. He just needs a long rest.

  32. D W says:

    I miss Keith’s take on things. A Wild and Crazy guy, but refreshing. He’s forgivable. Look how long we’ve had to endure O’Reilly (who seems to be on meltdown); then there’s that intolerable lying Hannity and all those other Fox whackos too detestable to watch more than 2 minutes. Keith is different in a way I can’t explain. I’ve missed him on MSNBC. He left a gaping hole. I never watch ESPN. Never watch sports. Such is life.

  33. Brad says:

    “Worst ______ in the world” is my must-see TV no matter what network. Honest reporting has no place on any corporate network and that’s the only kind we have. Maybe Adult Swim?

  34. cadavra says:

    Thank you, Brian, could not have put it better myself. C’mon, Griffin, do something smart for once!

  35. Jimy Tallal says:

    I’ve missed Keith Olbermann terribly since he left MSNBC. There’s no one else quite like him. I hope they read your column and decide to let bygones be bygones.

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