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ESPN, Keith Olbermann Part Ways

ESPN is cutting ties with the outspoken host Keith Olbermann, in the latest set-to between the Walt Disney-owned sports-media juggernaut and prominent members of its talent pool.

Olbermann’s program, which is simply titled “Olbermann” and runs on ESPN2, is expected to wrap up sometime this month, the company said.

“Keith is a tremendous talent who has consistently done timely, entertaining and thought-provoking work since returning to ESPN,” the company said in a statement. “While the show’s content was distinctive and extremely high quality, we ultimately made a business decision to move in another direction. We wish Keith nothing but the best and trust that his skill and ability will lead him to another promising endeavor.”

ESPN executives were pleased with the quality of Olbermann’s program, according to a person familiar with the situation, but felt the show was not attracting a level of viewership required to keep it on the air. “Olbermann” started in 2013 on ESPN2 running for an hour at 11 p.m., but it was often preempted or delayed due to event coverage. In September 2014, executives made the decision to move the show to 5 p.m. and cut it to half an hour.

Olbermann and ESPN had been discussing a new contract, this person said. His pact with ESPN was slated to end at the end of July.

ESPN has in recent months acted to curb a number of its better-known sportscasters. The company recently parted ways with the exceedingly popular Bill Simmons, who founded Grantland, its sports-and-culture digital outlet. Simmons had at various times criticized ESPN and NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, and ESPN suspended him on a few occasions. In July of last year, ESPN suspended Stephen A. Smith in the wake of controversial remarks the popular host made about women and domestic violence.

Olbermann was suspended by ESPN for part of a week in February after mixing it up on Twitter over a pediatric cancer benefit slated to be held at Penn State University.  He later apologized, saying his remarks were “stupid and childish.” That incident did not have any bearing on ESPN’ s decision, according to the person familiar with the matter, who said Olbermann had been a model employee during his run at ESPN, his third tenure with the company.

Olbermann has enjoyed a storied career, but has also been involved in some famous conflagrations with his employers. He rose to greater fame while serving as an anchor of ESPN’s “SportsCenter” between 1992 and 1997, but left in controversial fashion a few months after being suspended for appearing on the Craig Kilborn-hosted “Daily Show” on Comedy Central. A stint at Fox Sports ended when Olbermann clashed with none other than Rupert Murdoch, the longtime head of the company then known as News Corp.

Despite a seeming penchant for confrontation, Olbermann is a proven draw. He helped transform MSNBC from a middle-of-the-road cable-news outlet into an edgier success by pushing the network into political coverage with a progressive lens. He even co-anchored election coverage for the network, sparking criticism that he and others at MSNBC were too partisan for mainstream news events. Olbermann even feuded with Fox News Channel host Bill O’Reilly.

But Olbermann would earn a suspension in early 2011 after making donations to political candidates, in violation of network policy. Though he returned quickly, Olbermann decided to leave for Current TV, a progressive news network aimed at younger viewers. He clashed with owners there as well, and was eventually dismissed.

No decision has been made about what sort of program might replace “Olbermann,” the person said, and ESPN has not yet determined the final date for Olbermann’s current show.

 

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