Many years ago, one of my closest friends told me that the small company for which he worked at the time couldn’t afford to fire him for taking a weekend off because he was “indispensable.” The following Monday he learned a hard lesson when he was told he was fired, although the company itself learned its own hard lesson when they tried to rehire him a few days later (thinking he’d learned his lesson) and discovered he’d found a better-paying job with one of the industry leaders the very next day. No one is indispensable to any organization unless they own it. Salon’s Steve Kornacki believes that Keith Olbermann may have made himself a lot less dispensable through his success at MSNBC:
He became an all-purpose critic of the administration and its cheerleaders, and then of the Republican Party and the modern brand of conservatism it has embraced. For years, liberals had watched the growth of Fox News with dismay and alarm. With “Countdown,” they finally had their own prime-time cable news show to flock to. Olbermann embraced the rivalry, skewing Fox and its personalities — particularly Bill O’Reilly — with biting humor and sarcasm, daring them to respond and acknowledge him. His ratings climbed — not to Fox levels, to be sure, but to levels that had been unheard of at MSNBC.
MSNBC, for its part, embraced the identity Olbermann was offering them. By 2008, his frequent guest, Rachel Maddow, was given her own show at 9 p.m. And liberal radio host Ed Schultz was given his own shortly after that. Lawrence O’Donnell, another left-of-center voice, was added just a few months ago. Eventually, the network adopted a new motto — “Lean forward” — that’s about as subtle as Fox’s “fair and balanced” pledge. MSNBC’s prime-time lineup is now awash in progressive politics. The most conservative voice after 5 p.m. belongs to Chris Matthews, a former aide to Tip O’Neill who nearly ran for Senate in Pennsylvania as a Democrat last year. After casting about for years, MSNBC at last knows exactly who it is — and isn’t — trying to reach.
Of course, now that he’s surrounded by similar voices, Olbermann isn’t nearly as essential to MSNBC’s brand, which surely has something to do with his abrupt departure on Friday night. Exactly what led to his exit remains unclear, but it’s hardly a secret that he’s had several intense clashes with his bosses recently, one of which led to a brief suspension in November. Now that they’ve built a loyal prime-time audience of left-leaning viewers, NBC’s executives may simply feel that they can afford to be rid of Olbermann and all of the headaches he brings with him. It used to be that he was the only reason liberals turned on their channel at night. Now he’s one of many reasons — a victim of his own success, in other words.
I’m not so sure that this applies. Other than Maddow, whom Olbermann most certainly discovered and nurtured into a parallel show, the other people in the lineup had careers in broadcasting before Olbermann. Larry O’Donnell, who will replace Olby in the 8 pm ET slot, has been around NBC for years as a talking head, having also worked on Capitol Hill and as a writer and producer on NBC’s West Wing, for which he won an Emmy. Ed Schultz came out of the sparse liberal talk-radio circuit (as was Maddow, who survived the Air America train wreck).
Olbermann may have set the tone for MSNBC’s prime time, but that didn’t come because he took over the hour of programming, commando-style, and refused to leave the set until MSNBC decided to get partisan. MSNBC made that decision themselves when they hired and then rehired Olbermann. The actual strategy decision to go full-tilt to the left rather than present some notion of balance was made years ago, which Kornacki again credits to Olbermann without much evidence. Let’s not forget that MSNBC tried other hosts from the left-of-center for several years before Maddow and Schultz got their niche, like Jesse Ventura in 2003 and Donny Deutsch (who still appears as a talking head and guest host) a couple of years after that. The decision to go fully leftward was made well before 2008; it’s just that their talent search routinely flopped.
The game-changing moment came last March, when O’Donnell subbed for Olbermann and the ratings went up. Within three months, O’Donnell had his own prime-time show, and MSNBC had its parachute from Olbermann’s drama. The writing was on the wall by the time Olbermann got a two-day suspension for political donations to show guests. Clearly, MSNBC no longer needed its expensive prime-time star, and the outcome only surprises because of the abrupt nature of his public departure.
Does Olbermann still need MSNBC? Anderson Cooper’s coverage on CNN included former MSNBC host David Shuster, who insisted that a talent like Olbermann’s would draw plenty of interest, to which Cooper politely agreed. His other guests, including Howard Kurtz, Roland Martin, and Erick Erickson, didn’t offer the same assurance to fans of Olbermann. It would be difficult to see where Olbermann’s schtick would work on national broadcast or cable television other than MSNBC. CNN wants to pursue an ostensibly balanced, middle-of-the-road approach to news and opinion, and Fox obviously positions itself to the right of both CNN and MSNBC. On top of that, no one will be eager to take on the legendary personality conflicts that allegedly took place behind the scenes just to get someone that angry and partisan on their airwaves, at least not in the news business. In the end, Olbermann needed MSNBC a lot more than MSNBC needed Olbermann.
I’d expect Olbermann to return in another medium. A return to sports might be in the offing, although with bridges burned at both ESPN and NBC and his years-long animus towards Fox, there aren’t many options there either. He’d make a good fit at Huffington Post if their rumored web channel gets off the ground, although I’m not sure they could afford him. Olbermann himself might create his own web and/or cable channel and go the Al Gore route; he made enough money at MSNBC to have some capital put aside, and he’d find backers easily enough. He has plenty of time to decide his next move, and has too much support among the Left to simply fade into oblivion. When he does return, we’ll all have new grist for our mills, and it should be entertaining indeed.
Addendum: I have to admit to being very amused to have been named by Olbermann as the Best Person in the World and then the Worst Person in the World within a period of ten weeks. Who knew eternity would last 17 months?
Update: A few commenters think that President Obama’s call for civility precipitated Olbermann’s departure, but that’s pretty obviously not the case. If so, MSNBC would have also ended the shows of O’Donnell and Schultz, who regularly rant on air in pretty uncivil terms. It looks as though MSNBC and Olbermann got tired enough of each other to end the relationship, and I don’t think that had a lot to do with Comcast either, except that the departure of Jeff Zucker apparently left Olbermann with no allies in MSNBC management.
Be sure to read Noel Sheppard’s take on this at Newsbusters. Also, read all of Kornacki’s thoughts; I don’t agree with his conclusions, but it’s definitely worth reading.