Keith Olbermann’s departure and the unanswered questions

As the highest-rated and most controversial anchor on MSNBC, Keith Olbermann never failed to get people talking. But when the “Countdown” host abruptly parted ways with the network Friday, neither side was willing to say much at all.

During his on-air farewell speech, Olbermann simply explained that he’d “been told” that this would be his final “Countdown,” implying that MSNBC had fired him, before wishing his fans “good night and good luck.” He offered no reason for his departure, nor did the network, which issued a terse statement thanking Olbermann “for his integral role in MSNBC’s success.” The announcement was so sudden that promos featuring Olbermann were still running on the network an hour after his signoff. Later that night, on rival station CNN, Anderson Cooper speculated that maybe MSNBC “didn’t get the memo in time.”

Over the weekend, Olbermann did not respond to e-mails, and remained uncharacteristically silent on Twitter, prompting many questions. If Olbermann really was axed unexpectedly, why would the famously outspoken pundit go so gentle into that “good night”? More important, why would MSNBC fire its most-watched personality?


Eight years ago, Olbermann revitalized MSNBC by offering a left-leaning alternative to Fox News, creating a market for fellow hosts Rachel Maddow and Lawrence O’Donnell. “He really helped MSNBC turn its ratings around, and he certainly created appointment viewing on the network in prime time,” said media analyst Brad Adgate, a vice president at Horizon Media.

But network sources say Olbermann has clashed with his bosses for some time now, and tensions have been heightened since November, when Olbermann was suspended for making unauthorized campaign contributions to three Democrats. Now that MSNBC has surpassed CNN in ratings, and Maddow and O’Donnell are challenging Olbermann’s reign as the sole prime-time pillar, one source says Olbermann had become more expendable.

That Olbermann’s exit came just days before Comcast is due to take over MSNBC’s parent, NBC Universal, has some conspiracy theorists speculating that he quit before he was forced out by his new bosses. Olbermann left the same day that his biggest defender, NBC president Jeff Zucker, was on his way out the door. On Friday, former MSNBC host David Shuster wondered whether the coming structural shakeup influenced Olbermann’s departure. “Steve Capus, who’s the head of NBC News, will certainly have much more influence over MSNBC, and this may be part of it,” he told Anderson Cooper. “It was no secret that Steve was particularly upset — justifiably so — with how Keith handled the suspension.”

In a statement, MSNBC said Olbermann’s departure had nothing to do with Comcast.

During an interview on Sunday, MSNBC President Phil Griffin declined to talk about why the network decided to break its contract with Olbermann. “Obviously, we’ve lost a big player,” he admitted, but he added that Maddow’s ratings are solid and O’Donnell, who often substituted for Olbermann on “Countdown,” has already held his own in the 8 p.m. hour, which he’ll take over Monday. “When we put somebody on in prime time, we’ve got to know that the audience really knows them and respects them,” he said. “We’re not going to just throw it against the wall and see if it sticks. That kind of thinking gives you ulcers.”

By sticking with familiar talent, MSNBC is also distinguishing itself from CNN, which has taken a chance with " Piers Morgan Tonight” and “Parker Spitzer.”

CNN has courted Olbermann in the past, and it could use a boost to its 8 p.m. hour, as “Parker Spitzer” struggles to find a larger audience. But a person familiar with Olbermann’s exit agreement said it prevents him from turning up on a competing channel for about a year.

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.

In the meantime, Olbermann’s fans are waiting. Back in November, 300,000 people signed a petition with the advocacy group Progressive Change Campaign Committee to get Olbermann back on the air after his suspension. During his Friday night signoff, Olbermann thanked those supporters, and in response, thousands of MSNBC viewers wrote thank you notes back to him though the PCCC’s website.

“Keith, you were my voice in the wilderness when hardly anyone spoke out against the idiotic war in Iraq,” wrote longtime fan Astrid Fiedler. “I will miss you like a member of my family,” she added. “Thank you for telling the truth.”

Times staff writers Meg James and Joe Flint contributed to this report.