Keith Olbermann landed a new gig with an old partner, but under some tough conditions.  After first getting a spot on TBS’ post-season coverage of Major League Baseball, ESPN decided to pick him up for a new late-night sports talk show, sixteen years after his acrimonious departure:

Keith Olbermann will return to TV sooner than expected. The former MSNBC and Current anchor has finalized a deal with ESPN for a late-night show to air on ESPN2 later this year, sources tell The Hollywood Reporter. The show will originate from the ABC News Nightlinestudio overlooking Times Square. The deal is expected to be announced Wednesday. …

Of course, Olbermann’s clashes with management are well-documented. And his departure from ESPN in 1997 was less than amicable. He has said that he learned he was banned from the network’s Bristol, Conn., campus and he intimated in an interview with David Letterman that the relationship was irreparable.

“If you burn a bridge, you can possibly build a new bridge, but if there’s no river any more, that’s a lot of trouble,” said Olbermann during a 2007 appearance on Letterman’s Late Show.

And Olbermann wryly alluded to his peripatetic employment history during a June 5 conference call with reporters announcing the Turner deal.

“The safety valve here is that my season is about a month long,” he said, referring to Turner’s three weeks of postseason. “And if you go through the 37 pages of my resume you will notice that every one of my jobs has lasted at least one month.”

Given his history, ESPN wants to take some precautions with their Welcome Back Keither project.  One of those precautions has to do with the audience, reports the New York Times, in that ESPN would like a larger one than MSNBC (via Taylor Marsh):

Within ESPN, there was concern about asking Olbermann back because he left the network under emotionally charged circumstances and because it was feared by some that Olbermann had become too politicized as the host of his interim MSNBC program “Countdown,” which aired from 2003 through January 2011.

 On his new show, Olbermann will be free to discuss matters other than sports, including pop culture and current events, but not politics, the two-year pact specifies.

With any other commentator, this kind of restriction would be insulting.  In Olbermann’s case, it’s for his own good as well as ESPN’s.

Why did ESPN swallow its distaste for Olbermann and offer him a slot?  Fox Sports is ramping up their sports channel, advertising heavily on television to boost their presence, and landed its own broadcasting legend in that slot.  Note that I say broadcasting legend, and not sports broadcasting legend:

ESPN executives said Olbermann will help it face the challenge presented by the launch of Fox Sports 1, a rival all-sports network that just announced plans for a potentially similar series to star Regis Philbin, 82.

Philbin’s a great entertainer, but I don’t think he’s a dire threat to ESPN’s command of sports credibility.

Olbermann’s return to the platform of his greatest success doesn’t surprise me too much.  If ESPN can juice its ratings with Olbermann and keep him in a box to minimize the negative impact of his presence, then this is a smart move.  However, politics hasn’t been his only problem.  If Olbermann has improved his interpersonal skills, this could be quite a comeback for him, but that remains to be seen.  For those who miss Olbermann’s quick wit in sports commentary, this is a boon, temporary though it might be.