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

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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