Keith Olbermann Isn’t Returning to MSNBC — and He Wants You to Know Why

Keith Olbermann
Courtesy of Lou Rocco

Keith Olbermann must be The Worst Person in the World this week to anyone who works for MSNBC or NBC News.

The longtime sports and news personality spent Thursday afternoon producing an epic 21-post Twitter rant telling of a convoluted effort to return to MSNBC, where he once served as the linchpin of its primetime lineup. Over the course of 11 years and emails and comments sent between an array of senior NBCUniversal executives that run the gamut — from former NBCU News Group chief Pat Fili-Krushel and former NBC News Chairman Andy Lack to current NBCU CEO Jeff Shell — Olbermann alleges he was kept on tenterhooks about a return to the cable network where he had once enjoyed one of his most successful career stints.

That’s 11 years of conversations about my returning to @msnbc,” he said on Twitter. “Won’t happen. Should’ve.”

MSNBC disputes his accounts. “There was never any serious consideration of Keith Olbermann returning,” the network said in a statement.

Olbermann doesn’t agree. He says he has been chatting with Shell via email for two and a half years. “Dinners scheduled and postponed by the pandemic. Breakfasts with the new news guy, same. 2 sets of agents talking. And then Maddow announced she’d be sunsetting her nightly show, and then came the idea I might succeed her (or even fill-in)…”

Olbermann’s tale has been passed around all week, surfacing first in an account in The Daily Beast and then, in some more detail, in a report in Puck (Olbermann says the Beast report is more accurate). But he tells it as MSNBC is grappling with an array of personnel moves that have some of its most popular anchors leaving for new ventures. Brian Williams left at the end of 2021 after his most current contract ended, clipping a years-long tenure with NBCUniversal and leaving the cable-news network without a designated anchor to come in and handle coverage of big news events, no matter when they arise. Rachel Maddow is cutting back on her primetime appearances as she looking to fulfill a new pact with NBCUniversal that will have her produce more documentary projects, podcasts and other ventures. Craig Melvin is leaving his late-morning weekday program at the end of the month to focus on his daily “Today” duties.

In recent weeks, MSNBC has started to expand its opinion programming. “Morning Joe” will expand by an hour starting in April, taking over a 9 a.m. hour previously earmarked for breaking-news coverage. And MSNBC is relying more heavily on opinion on weekends, where it is running behind Fox News and CNN in the audience demographic favored most by advertisers, people between 25 and 54. Katie Phang, an attorney, is taking over an hour on weekend mornings, while Symone Sanders, the former campaign advisor to Democrats like Senator Bernie Sanders and President Joe Biden, is going to host an hour-long show on weekend afternoons.

Oddly, MNSBC used to really count on Olbermann and his show, “Countdown.” The program, which led off with a bit of music from Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, aired at 8 p.m. In it, he famously discussed an array of trending news topics while offering segments like “Worst Person in the World,” a contest that had three different newsmakers vie for the most offensive one of the day, and “Time Marches On,” which relied on footage of strange news events. Olbermann became a controversial figure, tilting against Fox News Channel’s Bill O’Reilly with remarks that became so pointed (and thrown back by his Fox News counterpart) that it took peace talks between Fox’s Rupert Murdoch and General Electric’s Jeffrey Immelt (then CEO of the parent company of NBC before selling it to Comcast) to cool the temperature.

Things began to sour in 2010, when MSNBC suspended the anchor for making donations to Democratic candidates, violating a policy that requires news personnel to get permission before doing so. The relationship ended abruptly when Olbermann left MSNBC in 2011 for an ill-fated stint at Current, a start-up cable-news outlet launched in part by former U.S. Vice President Al Gore. Anchor and network didn’t stay together long.

Olbermann has had many ideas flowed about how to return MSNBC. On Twitter, Olbermann described concepts like a different version of MSNBC’s 10 p.m. “Last Word” co-anchored by him and Republican pollster Kristen Soltis Anderson that would have presumably replaced longtime host Lawrence O’Donnell. He also says he recently suggested launching his new program under the aegis of Rachel Maddow’s production deal with NBCU, but alleges the prospect was turned down.

MSNBC and NBCUniversal may cast aspersions on Olbermann’s accounts, but there’s one thing executives there can’t deny: They do need to find a big primetime draw to replace Maddow, and they will have to do so relatively soon.