Talk about a Special Comment: Keith Olbermann announced on air that tonight’s edition of Countdown on MSNBC will be his last—specifically, that he was “told” it would be his last show—a move that was quickly confirmed by the network with a brief announcement:
MSNBC and Keith Olbermann have ended their contract. The last broadcast of “Countdown with Keith Olbermann” will be this evening. MSNBC thanks Keith for his integral role in MSNBC’s success and we wish him well in his future endeavors.
Neither Olbermann nor the network gave a reason why he’s leaving. But after the jump, a few quick thoughts about the move, and its possible repercussions:
* This is not the first time Olbermann has left a high-profile broadcasting job. In fact, it’s not the first time he’s left MSNBC. In an earlier iteration of his career, and of MSNBC’s identity, he hosted a primetime news show for the network, which he publicly complained about in 1998 after the job required him to constantly focus—overfocus, he felt—on the Monica Lewinsky sex scandal. He quit soon after. (Here’s an column I wrote at Salon at the time about the “one-man psychodrama” of Olbermann’s tenure.)
* Olbermann’s current stint at MSNBC has been no shorter on drama and conflict, as you know if you follow cable news at all. There have been disputes with MSNBC’s management; behind-the-scenes complaints among NBC News staff about how opinion hosts like Olbermann reflected on the larger organization; the frequent feuds with Bill O’Reilly and Fox News that bubbled over into the newspapers; and his suspension last year over campaign donations that violated network policy. I can’t say whether a similar dispute with management was behind this announcement until someone explains or another shoe drops; suffice it to say that people don’t generally suddenly leave multimillion-dollar TV jobs for happy reasons. (In his last remarks, he thanked the colleagues who “fought with me and for me,” though it’s not clear if that referred to a battle in recent days.)
* MSNBC immediately goes to its plan B, moving host Lawrence O’Donnell into the 8 p.m. slot and Ed Schultz to 10 p.m. The addition of O’Donnell, who’s done well enough comparatively for the network, leaves it in better shape to weather its star’s departure, but this still leaves the network with a sudden big hole in competitive primetime. It also may create something of an opportunity for CNN, which has been tussling with MSNBC for second place in primetime (when it hasn’t fallen behind its own sibling HLN). Granted, its new show Parker-Spitzer has been no competition at 8 p.m., and I wouldn’t bet much that it will pick up much even with Olbermann gone. But CNN has shown at least the possibility of getting traction this week with Piers Morgan’s new show (though it’s very early). At the very least, it could give CNN (disclosure: a Time Warner company like TIME) a shot at shaking things up.
* On the other hand, with enough hosts to fill primetime, if MSNBC management felt Olbermann had become more trouble than he was worth, maybe they felt comfortable enough at this juncture to rip the Band-Aid off now—or maybe soon-to-be-new-NBC bosses Comcast did. (In which case, we’ll have to see if any changes at MSNBC are limited to Olbermann’s show.)
* But that’s not the only place there are opportunities here. Again, much depends on why Olbermann is leaving and what his plans are. But the man has a big following and was a ratings pillar for MSNBC. And while I’ve criticized some of his rhetoric and arias here, he’s also sharp, funny, gifted with language and a natural in front of a camera. He could bring a ready audience with him wherever he decides to go next—assuming he goes anywhere at all—whether it’s back into sports broadcasting or to another news network. (Already on Twitter, Hollywood Reporter critic Tim Goodman has thrown out the maybe-not-entirely-crazy suggestion that Fox News sign Olby—instant “balance” and a proven voice [who used to work for Fox Sports].)
All of this, of course, depends on what other shoes are suspended in the air, and where they drop. For now, it’s good night, and good luck. We’ll see who needs that luck the most.