Cable news channel MSNBC ended its turbulent relationship with its most-popular anchor, Keith Olbermann, with a terse statement saying that Friday night’s show was his last.
In a six-minute farewell sign-off at the end of “Countdown with Keith Olbermann,” the forceful liberal commentator didn’t volunteer a reason for his abrupt departure from the channel that became an ideological counterbalance to the rival Fox News Channel.
The only hint Olbermann offered for his exit was an admission that over the last couple of years there were “many occasions” when the noise and heat surrounding the show “was just too much for me.” But, he added, it was a supportive, unwearying audience that “required that I keep going.”
Although Olbermann’s last broadcast came without warning, tension between the network and the former sports broadcaster — early in his career he appeared on KTLA-TV and KCBS-TV in Los Angeles — had been building for some time. Several weeks ago the two quietly began negotiating a severance, according to two people with knowledge of the matter.
Olbermann appeared to allude to some of the workplace strife on Friday, thanking his staff “who fought with and for me.”
The frayed relations snapped in November after MSNBC President Phil Griffin suspended Olbermann when it was revealed that the anchor had made political donations to three Democratic congressional candidates, including $2,400 to Rep. Gabrielle Giffords of Arizona. The contributions violated NBC News’ ethics policy for news staff members, who are supposed to be impartial.
The suspension, which Olbermann protested, didn’t last long — he was off the air for only two shows.
MSNBC on Friday was even more tight-lipped than Olbermann about why he was leaving, confirming in a three-sentence statement that his last show was Friday and thanking him for “his integral role in MSNBC’s success.”
The network said “The Last Word” with Lawrence O’Donnell would replace “Countdown” at 8 p.m. Rachel Maddow keeps her current 9 p.m. time slot and “The Ed Show” with Ed Schultz moves into O’Donnell’s previous slot at 10 p.m.
Olbermann has hosted “Countdown” since 2003. It was the most-watched show in MSNBC’s prime time lineup and drew 1.1 million viewers Thursday night, according to Nielsen Co.
“I was supposed to fill in for the late Jerry Nachman for exactly three days,” Olbermann said. “Forty-nine days later there was a four-year contract for me to return to this nightly 8 p.m. time slot which I had fled four years earlier. The show gradually established its position as anti-establishment.”
Olbermann, however, never quite matched the ratings of his longtime nemesis Bill O’Reilly, whose show, “The O’Reilly Factor,” on Fox News often beats “Countdown” by a 3-to-1 margin.
People close to the situation said the timing of Olbermann’s departure was coincidental to next week’s takeover of NBC Universal by Philadelphia-based Comcast Corp. Comcast released a statement saying it had not, and would not, “interfere with NBC Universal’s news operations.” However, his leaving removes one potential problem for Comcast, which might not have been comfortable with his confrontational politics.
Olbermann signed off his show Friday night in trademark fashion by tossing his papers at the screen. He did not indicate where he might be headed, although a person familiar with his exit agreement said it prevents him from turning up on a competing channel for about a year.
Late Friday, the founder and chief executive of the liberal-leaning Media Matters for America, David Brock, saluted Olbermann, saying “for nearly eight years, ‘Countdown with Keith Olbermann’ led the charge against conservative misinformation in prime time.”
Times staff writers Scott Collins, Joy Press and Joe Flint contributed to this report.