It seems like barely a year ago, because it was, that Keith Olbermann left MSNBC after a series of feuds with management involving everything from political donations to behind-the-scenes personality clashes. Olbermann quickly moved to Al Gore’s Current TV, where he would be not only the star but a part owner and news director: a move, he said at the time, that would finally give him the independence to call his own shots and run his show as he saw fit. The notoriously tough employee would now be, at least in part, a boss—others’ and his own.
Come a new year, a Presidential election season, and on Iowa caucus night, Olbermann was… nowhere to be found. Now Brian Stelter reports in the New York Times that Olbermann’s absence was the result of, yep, tensions with his new management at Current, this time it seems over the channel’s often-amateurish level of production:
He declined Current’s requests to host special hours of election coverage, apparently out of frustration about technical difficulties that have plagued his 8 p.m. program, “Countdown.”
The channel decided to produce election shows without him. Mr. Olbermann, however, said he did not know that, and on Tuesday, the day of the Iowa caucus, the cold war of sorts reached a flash point. He held a staff meeting even though “Countdown” had been pre-empted.
Perceiving it to be an act of defiance, David Bohrman, Current’s president, wrote a memo to Mr. Olbermann’s staff telling them that the anchor had long ago given up the opportunity to anchor on election nights.
In a statement to The Hollywood Reporter yesterday, Olbermann pushed back against Current’s account, saying, “I was not given a legitimate opportunity to host under acceptable conditions.” The conditions he has been delivering Countdown under for the past several months, to be sure, have included graphics foulups and the lights going out while Countdown was on air.
If Olbermann’s issue is in fact with the production values, I see his point: Half a year after his new Countdown premiered, it still looks visually like a comedown from MSNBC—and Countdown looks state of the art next to the Wayne’s World production that Current put out for its Iowa caucus analysis. I haven’t looked at Current’s books, but you would think that when it planned to sink eight figures into hiring Olbermann, it would have left something aside in the budget to build a technically sound operation around him.
But this also seems like a showdown over what should have been two very foreseeable issues. Before Olbermann came, Current had some excellent documentary programming, but it had to be clear it would not be easy to build it (without a deep-pocketed corporate parent to boot) into a top-shelf-looking in-studio news operation. Conversely, Current can not credibly claim not to have known that Olbermann is an, er, exacting employee.
He’s a boss now too, though, and it’s in both his interest and Current’s to work through this and build the channel into a credible news competitor, a big part of which involves actually having its biggest star anchoring its major news coverage. Here’s hoping they can turn down the heat and generate some light—preferably on Countdown’s set.