What’s next for Keith Olbermann?

by Russell's Rants

Originally published January 23, 2011

Count me among those stunned and disappointed by Friday’s closing segment of Countdown with Keith Olbermann, in which he announced that it would be his last show on MSNBC. Since then, some have speculated that Olbermann may be headed west to Los Angeles to work in Hollywood with Aaron Sorkin (creator of The West Wing and The Social Network). Others presume that he’ll do some short-term sports radio with his friend, Dan Patrick, who broadcasts on an NBC affiliate and which would appear not to violate the Conan O’Brien-like non-compete/confidentiality clauses alleged to be in Keith’s severance agreement. Where Keith lands, however, is important not just for him personally but for political discourse in this country.

MSNBC management has alternatively described Keith Olbermann as the “brand definer” or “tent pole at the center” of its primetime line-up. (I also credit Chris Matthews as a major rope holding up that teepee!) Keith took a little-noticed cable offshoot of NBC news and turned it into a profitable network that surpassed viewership on CNN – though not always Fox. And speaking of Fox Noise Channel (or in Olbermann’s other characterization, “Fake News Channel”), MSNBC became a counter-weight to that conservative bastion in large part due to Keith’s leadership. Who checked the over-the-top craziness of Limbaugh, Beck and Hanity? That would be the spotlight shined by Countdown’s “Worst Person in the World.” Who gave a full-throated voice to liberal positions and stuck by them – even when criticizing Obama and Clinton, from time to time? That would be Keith Olbermann. And who mentored the next generation of MSNBC hosts left alone now to shoulder the network by themselves? You know who.

And that gets closer to the point. Is Olbermann’s departure just a statement about his alleged mercurial personality – or is it a harbinger of what we can expect of NBC Universal after it is taken over by Comcast at the end of this month? Some have connected the dots between the Supreme Court’s odious decision in Citizens United (permitting unfettered corporate campaign contributions), the conservative make-up of Comcast’s board (and excessive lobbying of the FCC to permit it purchase of NBC Universal from General Electric) and Keith’s early departure from MSNBC – leaving over 2 years on several millions of dollars on his employment contract. Maybe Olbermann saw the writing on the wall, as they say. Or maybe, despite Comcast’s protestations that it will not interfere with news operations at NBC, the network is self-censoring itself to please what it presumes to be the expectations of its new conservative overlords. As Russell Simmons poetically lamented Olberman’s coming absence, “The Night the Lights Went Out On NBC.”

If the Comcast acquisition of NBC Universal spells the doom of MSNBC as a liberal counter-weight to Fox News, that would be tragic. And seemingly bad for business at MSNBC, which has built its brand around the Olbermann style and substance of politics. But most importantly, it would bad for the rest of us, especially, on the progressive side, who look to MSNBC as the on-air home for liberal commentators and to incubate and debate liberal thought.

I can understand why Piers Morgan, the new replacement for Larry King on CNN, has reportedly banned Olbermann from his show. Sagging in the ratings, CNN would be wise, after Keith’s non-compete period expires, to liven its primetime hour with a new version of Countdown, perhaps in placed of what’s-his-name’s new show. It’s hard to see Rupert Murdoch, reluctant winner of oh so many “Worst Person” designations, giving Keith a spot on Fox News, but wouldn’t that be interesting?

Wherever Keith lands, it’s important for all of us that he not be off the air for long and that he be able to contribute to the national debate soon.

Postscript:  We and MSNBC seem to have gotten along fine in his absence.olberman