His anger drove his ratings, but also drove his bosses crazy. Howard Kurtz on how the newly unemployed MSNBC star’s indignation fueled his rise and fall.
When Keith Olbermann launched his MSNBC program eight years ago, he attempted to assemble a witty, fast-paced, post-ironic look at the day’s news. Then he got angry.
As his indignation swelled—fueled by George W. Bush, the Republicans, the Iraq war and Fox News—his ratings ballooned as well. But at times the anger would metastasize into self-righteous fury, producing bitter confrontations with his network bosses—who treasured Olbermann’s success but were increasingly worn out by the histrionics.
Olbermann’s abrupt departure Friday demonstrated, in a very real sense, the limits of anger as a tool of television. The same fervor that draws cheers from partisan viewers almost invariably leads to clashes with the people who sign the checks, as their pit bull starts gnawing on the furniture.
For Phil Griffin, a friend and colleague of Olbermann’s for three decades, the demise of Countdown was a giant step toward asserting control over his network, even at the price of losing his biggest star. And the MSNBC president, whose hand was forced by what he regards as Olbermann’s scorched-earth tactics, is hardly alone in an industry in which anchor-monsters draw huge salaries but are difficult to tame.
At Fox News, Roger Ailes has occasionally tried to rein in Bill O’Reilly and has asked Glenn Beck to watch his tone: “He and I have had conversations and lunches where I say, ‘What the hell are you doing, man?’…Beck trashes Republicans every night. I’ve said to him, ‘Where the hell are you going to get your audience if you keep this up? You’re trashing everyone.’”
As for Sean Hannity’s Republican boosterism, Ailes was sufficiently annoyed last April to order him to cancel a show at a Cincinnati Tea Party event—where organizers were charging admission—and return to New York.
At CNN, Lou Dobbs resigned in 2009 after management ordered him to be less strident, particularly on immigration issues. Dobbs said he wanted the freedom to speak out and possibly jump into politics.
For Griffin, a blunt-spoken former producer, Olbermann was an immense talent with an ego to match, and their dealings often devolved into a test of wills. As part of the settlement of Olbermann’s $30-million contract, insiders say both sides have agreed for a limited period not to discuss his departure, which was hammered out over a period of weeks and gave Griffin time to rejigger his prime-time schedule.
Virginia Sherwood / AP Photo
Former MSNBC anchor David Shuster told me that Olbermann wanted to capitalize on his liberal base—supporters rushed to sign an online petition when he was suspended in November—and felt he needed to “be able to do the sort of reporting and analysis without having my wings clipped by NBC News…He wanted to be paid what he felt he was worth, and he wanted the respect that he felt his 300,000 fans who signed the petition deserved.”
For Phil Griffin, a friend and colleague of Olbermann’s for three decades, the demise of Countdown was a giant step toward asserting control over his network, even at the price of losing his biggest star.
Olbermann had also clashed with Griffin’s predecessors, Rick Kaplan and Dan Abrams, once attacking Abrams on the air as a “fired MSNBC employee” full of “bitterness” toward the channel. Abrams, now an online entrepreneur, chose to step down as MSNBC general manager and stay on as NBC’s legal analyst. Abrams declined to respond to Olbermann’s past criticism, but told his Web site Mediaite that “Keith Olbermann certainly deserves enormous credit for helping MSNBC overtake CNN in the ratings.”
Olbermann was acutely aware that his maneuvering room might shrink with the more buttoned-down executives at Comcast set to take over NBC this week. And for Griffin, the overriding question was whether to keep fighting the same battles or bet the network’s future on the liberal hosts he hired in Olbermann’s wake: Rachel Maddow, Ed Schultz and Lawrence O’Donnell.
“We're in a great position because we're using home-grown people to fill up these slots,” says Griffin, who declined to discuss Olbermann’s departure. “Our prime time has the same sensibility.” As for the void left by Olbermann, he says, “we're just going to have to work a little harder and be a little smarter. We've created a community here.”