Media Circus: Keith Olbermann on burying the hatchet with ESPN
This is not your father’s Keith Olbermann.
At least not when it comes to his current relationship with ESPN, a romance that has been far more Sleepless In Seattle than The War of The Roses. The broadcaster the New Yorker magazine once tabbed as “One Angry Man” returned to ESPN 14 months ago, and this current incarnation of Olbermann has been a mix of fire (on the air) and fidelity off it (there has been no public bashing of his employer or colleagues).
With more than a year in the books back at ESPN, Sports Illustrated caught up with the 55-year-old broadcaster last week for a two-part conversation on his current work experience and a host of other topics (His show “Olbermann” can be seen daily at 5 p.m. ET on ESPN2). Part 2 of this conversation can be found here.
How would you evaluate your level of professional happiness at the moment?
Very good. It has been a little over 14 months since I went back on the air with ESPN and 13 months since the show started. I’m pretty satisfied with the results and pretty satisfied with the experience.
So what are you most satisfied with -- and what can still improve?
[ESPN president] John Skipper, [ESPN programming head] Norby Williamson and I had 2 ½ goals going in. The first one was: Let’s re-establish the relationship because I think they were just as unhappy as I was with the fact that every time somebody brought my name up in connection with ESPN, it had all the baggage of the past. We both wanted it to have a different ending and I think that has been true for a long time. Then there was the strategic usefulness relative to Fox Sports. In case there was anything actually happening there, the goal was to make sure it didn’t. My task, my assignment, was to basically smother them before they hatch. Destroy the eggs!
Have you destroyed the Fox Sports 1 eggs?
I take no credit for it because my experience with them [Fox Sports] having done the same thing at the other end of it, being with Fox Sports Net in 1999 and 2000 and 2001, suggests to me that anything they have achieved is entirely their own doing. But there was a certain quality of strategy for ESPN, as in: “let’s make this move now.” And it got as much attention as their launch did. The third goal that I referred to as our 2 ½ goals, that third one was do a good show. Once the Sports Emmy nomination [for Outstanding Daily Studio Show] came through [this year], I think that question was answered. We did all the things we set out to do with surprising quickness. I thought the whole getting back together thing would take a little more time than it did.
So what has been the least satisfying part of this current ESPN experience, if any?
We haven’t found in the new format [the show moved from late-night to daytime] at the new time a right note on all the highlights. I went from something I loved doing, which is getting those highlights literally right out of the edit room and doing them virtually blind and with stream of consciousness, and we can’t do that anymore because the number of day games in the National Hockey League on an October afternoon is pretty low. At this point, that is pretty much the only thing I dislike about it.
Have you heard from either the NFL or your own management about your repeated commentaries calling for Roger Goodell to be fired?
I have not heard from the NFL, not one word. Or, if the NFL has said anything, my management has protected me from it. Now I don’t know that to be true but I know I have had no emails, no phone calls, no threats. As for the resignation call for Goodell, I have heard from management to the highest levels of this company, and they have all been supportive. I don’t know that they have been supportive to the point where they willing to say we agree with you, but they have given me complete support for expressing this opinion.
The first day I said Roger Goodell should quit was after a Peter King story about whether Janay and Ray Rice were interviewed by Goodell together. So that was end of July, beginning of August. I said then that it completely ruined the investigation, and the support from my taking that stance and my right to take that stance has been 100 percent. Since then I might be at three dozen commentaries [on the NFL] and I think the total number of requests for changes is 10 words.
Your employer has a prominent financial connection to the NFL as a broadcast rightsholder. When you call for Goodell to be fired or are highly critical of that league, do you or your staff let your bosses know that it is coming?
I think there have been commentaries they [management] have not been happy with but they let me do them anyway. I think that underscores the mutual respect. They have handed me a big platform on the network and said here are the lines and the process but we will not interfere with what your editorial conclusions are. The mechanics are as soon as we decide what the commentary will be, [executive producer] Kevin Wildes will tell the appropriate executives in Bristol so they may have as much as six hours notice. The key people all get the A Block [opening] commentary and the Worst Persons. So the scripts are sitting with them for a couple of hours. The reason we work on these topics so far in advance is to give the company a chance to vet them and to give our own people the chance to make all the graphics and all the video and all the production elements that make it look slick rather than some guy staring into the camera for six minutes.
You have never been shy offering your opinion about your employer or your colleagues at previous stops. It seems on this stop you have had a lot of restraint talking about ESPN issues or colleagues. Is that assertion fair, and more importantly, what is the reason for that?
I would think I have commented on the people I have worked with at about 50 percent of my employers and when you have had as many employers as I have had, I think that is kind of a low number (laughs). That’s for the biography (laughs). We can assume that to some degree what you are saying is correct. My attitude toward this and it pertains specifically to ESPN: In the period of time after my time at Current TV, my desire or inner flame that I would like to make all the key decisions went away. I was reminded how bad I was when I was the summer station manager for our college radio station filling for the guy who had the job. I was 18 years old and I was the worst executive of all time. I literally had a Simpsons-like meeting with the staff and told them to work harder. That’s how bad I was at it and I was reminded of that in the Current TV experience.
So the words that Norby Williamson used to say to us when we would go to him in the early ‘90s and say, “Why are we doing it this way?” He would say, “I don’t know. Not my day to run the network.” So that has been my mantra and I have found that really valuable. The primary reason it has been so valuable is I don’t have the time or mental alacrity anymore to spend a significant amount of time in the day wondering about things that really are other people’s jobs. I stay out of it as much as I can because you should continue to learn through middle age and I think I am doing that.
Secondly, I think it has been easier to accomplish that here. Norby and I have known each other 22 ½ years through good stuff and bad stuff. We know what pushes each other’s buttons. Chuck Salituro (a senior news editor) has been there since I was there the first time. I’ve known Bob Ley for 23 years. There is an interesting mellowing that takes place in terms of attitudes because you can’t -- whether they were good friends or not – you can’t create new old friends. I would prefer to keep my interactions with them as supportive and as warm as I can get. That may sound a little Pollyanna but it is a new tact I am taking as opposed to pitchforks ad torches I’ve had in the past sometimes. There is not enough time left in my life to waste any of it complaining about things that I don’t have any control except when they are in the NFL.
Well, I’ll ask this anyway: In your opinion, was the Bill Simmons suspension justified?
This is not my day to run the network! See how useful that phrase is? There is the phrase from medieval times that the king asked for, that could be used at all times under all circumstances. His scholars came back with “This too shall pass.” The second one is “Bye, Felicia” from the movie Friday, which can be used as dismissive or an end of something. The third one is “not my day to run the network.” As facile as it is to say under a question of that importance, I have been too often in that situation throughout my career, and if it is three or four times it is too often. So I have been too often in that situation to treat it lightly when it concerns somebody else. So the best and most respectful thing to everybody involved on both sides is for me to not to assess it.
How much do you miss marinating in politics every day?
I would be deceitful if I said not at all but two interesting things happened in the period of time between the debacle at Current TV reaching critical mass and the decision a year later to get started at ESPN. There were things I noticed: I enjoyed covering politics, I enjoyed being on the air, I certainly enjoyed being in the middle of controversies, and I enjoyed being one voice saying I don’t think this is right, I enjoyed that and I own it. Every once in a while someone will say something about a Special Comment I said on MSNBC literally eight or nine years ago and I am very happy about that. So, to some degree, I miss that.
The interesting thing is that in the year I had off I didn’t need them. This was a decided change for me. Previously between jobs I was just desperate enough to write material that would never see air because I just had a need to respond to what was going in the world or sports world. That didn’t happen this time. It was actually me concentrating on things that mattered other than a broadcast and I found that very valuable. The direct answer is – and I know I never give one – yes and no. I do miss that marinating process and no, I don’t need to do it again.
There was some talk of trying to get Dan Patrick to do a one-time SportsCenter and likely with you. Can the relationship between Patrick and ESPN ever be healed to where the two of you could do a one-off assignment?
Once you have gone out the door at ESPN there is no way you can possibly ever come back (laughs). I think the company attitude on this subject is reflective in the fact that I came back. The process was labyrinthine but it turned out to be a very cathartic and positive process. I think something like that would not be necessary for Dan because I am sure he would never want to come back full time.
But the idea of doing a show together? We were always our best audience for each other. The first time Dan and I worked together was 1984. We have a lot of history there and the best part of the [SportsCenter] show was not the accolades, it was not the viewer response -- those things were A-plus and everyone should be lucky to get one of those things and we got two. But the best part of it was, and this continued when I worked with him at ESPN Radio in 2005 and at NBC Sports, the primary value of working with Dan and I think he would say this about me, was working with Dan. Because if I said something funny, he would laugh. If I said something stupid, he would groan. If I said to him in commercial break, like, I don’t know who this guy is in this upcoming NBA highlight, he would give me his résumé. If he said the same thing to me about a baseball highlight, I would do the same thing for him. The primary value of working with him was how supportive he was and how supportive I was of him.
To do that again under any circumstances I would welcome. I can’t be in a position to lobby for it to happen and the reasons why it has not happened, I don’t want to get into that. We have resolved me versus ESPN; I don’t want to go into anyone else versus ESPN. I don’t have enough life left. But if it happens, I will make sure I’d be there and it would be a great deal of fun. But it would not be something we’d want to do on a regular basis. Among other things, with all the technology and all the people doing highlights and doing them well particularly at ESPN, I don’t think we’d stand out that much. It might be like we welcome back Walter Johnson and Cy Young.
Let me ask you a question about Twitter. It can be a rough place and you are very aggressive on your feed against those who come after you whether for sports reasons, political reasons or just to go after you for sport. What is your rationale for that? In my opinion, ESPN has given you a lot of latitude here.
It’s batting practice. You ask how do I prepare for a show? In periods of transportation situations or other situations where you have surfed the ‘net and you have another 10 minutes to kill, I will get on Twitter just to see how fast I can turn these guys tweets around. Almost all of them are so ludicrously badly done. Other people have Angry Birds to play. Some people warm-up with 10 minutes on a treadmill. If I go 10 minutes on Twitter, I find my brain just a little bit sharper. It is batting practice. People say to me: “Don’t feed the trolls.” I say, “Feed the trolls.” I should pay these people. I really should because every last one that has called me an idiot has misspelled a word. It might be 95 percent but it is amazing.
What person knows you the best and why?
Wow. The answer is my girlfriend and that’s all I’m going to say about her because that’s all I am going to say about her.
Totally understandable. But I am interested in the importance of marriage as a concept for you. Is it important for you to be married at some point in your life?
It has never really has been that important. If you are at an impressionable age when a counter-culture wave comes through the country, you may in fact be changed permanently in a way others are not. I never thought of marriage as an essential. I have approached it. I have discussed it. A girlfriend and I 15 years ago were engaged to be engaged. We were two adults talking like we were in the fifth grade but that is where we were. Other times it has been discussed. The relationship now sure feels like marriage. There is nothing formalized about it but our finances are mixed and living arrangements are mixed. For me, it clearly does not have that urgency. I’m 55 years old. To me, it really is a word as opposed to a lifestyle. I don’t know what it means at this point and I have seen a lot of people who have had good relationships where a marriage overlay was superimposed on them and they soon did not have the marriage or the relationship and I don’t want that.
What political figure that you have encountered most impressed you with his or her sports knowledge and why?
This question gave me pause. Four of the last five Presidents have really known their stuff. For six years now I've been in a fantasy football league with political figures and reporters - we vowed not to out each other in public, but Chuck Todd has self-identified, and he's pretty manic. Tim Russert and I used to have these rapid-fire political discussions, 20 minutes into which he'd say "But KO, what about what's important? What about my Nats? What about the Hall of Fame vote?" Still, the guy with the most serious sports chops: the most recent President Bush. He went on the ESPN broadcast of the first game of Nationals Park and within half an inning half his twang had vanished and he was talking twice as fast and a mastery of his topic was evident to anybody listening. He really came alive in that booth. Hell, if he'd do the color, I'd do the play-by-play.
The Noise Report
SI.com examines some of notable sports media stories of the past week:
1. Late into the evening of July 8, 2010 at ESPN’s offices in Bristol, Ct., a fateful night in the sports world thanks to a young man named LeBron James announcing his decision to play in Miami, a pair of ESPN.com editors engaged in a fateful conversation.
“You know, what we need to do is launch ESPN.com Miami,” Chris Ramsay, a top NBA editor and the son of the late Dr. Jack Ramsay, said to Patrick Stiegman, one of the top editors at ESPN.com.
But Stiegman wanted to go even more micro.
“What we really need to do,” Steigman told Ramsay, “is launch ESPN Miami Heat.”
That conversation ultimately led to the hiring of reporters Brian Windhorst and Mike Wallace and the launch of the Heat Index, the sub-site covering all things Miami Heat during the Big Three era.
What now? Well, with James now in Cleveland, ESPN has similar ambitious plans for all things LeBron.
The former ESPN Los Angeles.com writer Dave McMenamin has relocated from L.A. to Cleveland and is now ESPN.com’s beat writer for the Cavs. Windhorst will relocate from New York to the Midwest and will continue to be a major voice on James in addition to working as a national NBA reporter (Windhorst also has a residence in Cleveland). ESPN also hired former CBSSports.com college football writer Jeremy Fowler to cover the Browns. He’ll also be available for Cavs duty, as will other NBA reporters if the storyline dictates it (which will be often). Stiegman, now the vice president & editorial director for ESPN Digital & Print Media, said that ESPN had interest in expanding its coverage in Cleveland and the return of James cemented that. Obviously, Johnny Manziel’s arrival was also a factor.
“I think we had a pretty good rhythm on the digital side with The Heat Index,” Stiegman said. “It was really an eye-opener for us. It proved to be a successful formula on a story that was of importance both locally and nationally. I think that will be the same thing for LeBron in Cleveland. I have no doubt we will cover all the stories in the NBA but LeBron will be at the heart of that. We will listen to our audience but, quite frankly, we also pay attention to metrics and I can guarantee you during the time LeBron and that team was in Miami, our Heat traffic was far and away the single-most part of what was record-breaking NBA coverage each year. We know there is an audience for this.”
1a. McMenamin said ESPN offered him the Cavs job after he did a SportsCenter feature on new Cavs coach David Blatt. Primarily a writer, it was the first television story McMenamin had ever done involving a script and recording a voice track.
“A couple hours after the piece aired, I get a call from [NBA editor] Henry Abbott asking me if I’d be interested in moving to Cleveland to cover LeBron and the Cavs. No one at the company has admitted it to me yet, but I am pretty sure the Blatt feature was a test to see how I’d do with a TV assignment like that. Even after doing the Blatt story, Henry’s call came as a complete surprise. I figured ESPN would have someone on the ground covering LeBron, but I thought they would probably hire someone outside of the company. The one thing I did tell Henry was that it was an honor to be considered for the position. Not to be all reverent about it, but the opportunity is very special to me. To be able to cover the best player in the sport and perhaps the best athlete in the world for an outlet that so many people get their sports fix from isn’t something I take lightly.
"Henry told me to take the weekend to think about it. I reached out to a couple of close friends for advice. One, who works in journalism, said, 'Dave, the next time you call me you should be telling me your address in Cleveland so I know where to send the Christmas card. It’s a no brainer.' The other said, 'This is the type of thing if you say no to, you could end up having regrets.' And then the third voice in the process, which is still unbelievable to me, was my dad. After LeBron announced he was going to Cleveland, my dad called me up and said, somewhat facetiously, 'So, when are you moving to Cleveland?!' I’m a guy who believes in fate, so thinking about that conversation I had with my dad actually coming to fruition was what really pushed me over the top. I emailed Henry on Sunday night and said, 'I want the gig and I’m the right person for the job.'
"Really, the choice is about the work. Plain and simple.
"On its face, I know most people just don’t understand how someone could willingly choose to leave sunny California for the endless winters of Cleveland. Some of the reactions I’ve received have been downright mean. If I hear one more joke about making sure I pack a warm coat, I swear. But it was something that I couldn’t say no to when I really thought about it … Add in my career aspirations of covering the NBA more from a national perspective than following one team, doing more TV and getting back to the east coast where my family is and it just feels right. As one writer who covered LeBron and saw his career go to another level told me, 'LeBron has the Midas touch.'”
1b. Baxter Holmes, who did excellent work for the Boston Globe as a Celtics beat writer, has been hired by ESPN to work as a writer for ESPN Los Angeles. He’ll cover the Lakers and Clippers and will also cover some national stories.
2. The Colts win over the Texans last Thursday drew 15.9 million viewers, which is also the average this season for Thursday Night Football through five games on CBS/NFL Network.
2a. Through its first six games, ESPN’s Monday Night Football has averaged 13,480,000 viewers.
2b. CBS NFL analyst Dan Fouts on the struggles of the Jets: “In meeting with the players and coaches on Friday, I came away with the feeling that, although they said all the right things about being professional and bouncing back, it all kind of rang hollow. Now, Rex Ryan calls his team a bunch of fighters. They will go to the mat with you. But they certainly didn't look that way when they were shut out by the Chargers last Sunday. Ryan told us the reason he named Geno Smith his starting quarterback for today's game after the loss to the Chargers is he didn't want a quarterback controversy to develop. But if Geno Smith doesn't play better Sunday, if the Jets don't win, the quarterback controversy will be the least of Ryan's problems.”
The Jets lost, 31-17, to Denver.
2c. Fox Sports NFL Insider Jay Glazer on how off-the-field issues for Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston have affected his draft stock: “Enormously. Every general manager I talked to this week said, ‘We’ve either dropped Jameis Winston down or we’ve really had to consider whether we even want him in our locker room.’”
3. ESPN CollegeGame Day drew 2,036,000 viewers for its show from The Grove at Ole Miss on Oct. 4. That was well above the show’s average of 1,789,000 viewers over the first six weeks of the season. Lee Fitting, the executive producer of GameDay, said that Ole Miss is being seriously considered for a return visit later this year.
3a. With the Cardinals-Dodgers NLDS as a lead-in, Fox Sports 1’s college football late-night countdown show (midnight to 1 a.m.) averaged 173,000 viewers – its high for the year – on Oct. 4. The re-air Saturday morning (against GameDay) between 9-10am ET averaged 37,000 viewers.
4. Sports pieces of note:
• Michael McKnight on the death and life of Donnie Moore. One of the best SI Longform stories we've ever done online.
• Writer Heidi E. Carpenter had a terrific tribute to Cigar, the great thoroughbred that died last week.
• ESPN’s Marc Stein on how the Mavericks landed Chandler Parsons.
• SB Nation’s Chris Plante on the struggle and romance of Royals fandom.
• The New York Times had an in-depth look at Florida State football and justice in Tallahassee.
• Very cool interactive via Runners World: What Will It Take To Run A 2-Hour Marathon.
• Grantland’s Bryan Curtis on sportswriter Bob Ryan.
Non-sports pieces of note:
• A short film really worth viewing: What Happens When Second Graders Are Treated to a Seven-Course, $220 Tasting Meal.
• Wired’s Kevin Poulsen, on two men who exploited a bug in one of the Vegas’s most popular video poker games.
•How a doctor, trader and a billionaire got entangled in a vast financial scandal.
• Via the New Yorker: Is there a limit to the number of friends we can have?
• As a girl she was drugged and repeatedly sold for sex. As an adult, she's leading the fight against the sexual exploitation of children: Writer Jeff Pearlman interviews Kate Price.
5. Last week I took issue with a blanket statement made by ESPN Radio host Colin Cowherd on his daily radio show. The statement was as followed:
“By the way, African-American men do not watch hockey.”
Cowherd is a talented sports radio host but his frequent trading in absolutes and socioeconomic mumbo jumbo -- often with little backing beyond his own bloviating -- can be spectacularly irksome, at least to me. He does this frequently and I tweeted out some thoughts on the matter, including some-not-so-useful-sarcasm directed at Cowherd, as well as re-tweeted some African-American followers who reached out to say they were big hockey fans. There were a lot of them. As I was tweeting stuff out, I had worked myself up pretty good as if I was in a WWE wrestling promo. That’s generally not a good place to be.
A couple of hours after my tweets, a friend emailed to say he thought what I did could be perceived as me coming across like I was using race to get Twitter attention. “I know that was not your intention,” he told me. “I’m saying that’s how it came off.”
That wasn’t fun to hear but it was fair criticism, even though it definitely wasn’t my intention. Anyone who has read this column regularly knows my goal is to treat race-related topics in sports media with thoughtfulness.
This year I’ve been tagged by some Deadspin writers for being “thirsty,” which is essentially someone too eager to get attention. I have to own that I’m guilty of that sometimes on Twitter. Ultimately, I want my content to be valued as smart, even if the subject matter isn’t as weighty as conflict journalism or public policy. I want statements I make (whether on Twitter or here) to come from a place of thoughtfulness, reported analysis or at least fire with smarts.
There are plenty of times, in my opinion, Cowherd has played games with racially tinged subtexts under the larger prism of getting attention for his show. So I got annoyed that he once again was trafficking in absolute statements. Was I taking him too literally? In hindsight, I clearly did. We are all guilty of saying something that comes off as an absolute when meaning otherwise. I don’t think Cowherd was race-baiting on this topic.
After I tweeted out my series of tweets, Cowherd eventually cited a a piece that cited a 2013 Nielsen study on television viewing demographics. While I think Nielsen sports data is flawed given it massively undercounts sports fans who watch sports communally (and the sampling numbers as a whole are low) – Nielsen wasn’t helped this week by this – the host ultimately did provide some data to eliminate the absolute part of his statement. I should have been much clearer that my reaction on this topic was triggered by my larger issues with him on his use of absolutes.
As I move forward on Twitter, I hope to continue what has always been the strength and purpose of my feed – passing along great content as well as a distribution for my stuff and my SI colleagues' stuff. No one from SI told me to write this, nor did anyone from ESPN contact me. It’s self-serving and self-evaluation but I thought I owed it to those who were interested. Thanks for indulging.
5a. The NFL Network has multiplatform content to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the Herschel Walker trade from Minnesota to Dallas.
5b. Awful Announcing had a podcast with “Those Guys Have All The Fun” author James Andrew Miller on the Simmons’ suspension other sports media matters.
5c. TBS’ coverage of the ALCS between the Royals and Orioles has averaged 5,119,000 total viewers through two games, up nine percent over the network’s coverage of last year’s NLCS telecasts (Dodgers/Cardinals).
5d. New York Times sports business writer Richard Sandomir on the veryclose relationship between John Calipari and ESPN.
5e. Fox Sports 1 investigative journalist Kevin Vaughan had a report alleging police and FSU officials hampering the Winston investigation.
5f. Last Wednesday’s Flyers-Bruins NHL opener drew 956,000 viewers, the most-watched opening night game on cable on record (data available since 1993), according to NBC Sports. The Sharks-Kings airing later that night averaged 446,000 viewers. Combined, the doubleheader averaged 679,000 viewers. The Flyers-Bruins peaked at 1.206 million viewers from 8-8:15 p.m. ET.
5g. Take the time to watch this Fox Sports 1 piece (produced by Sarah Burlingham) on basketball in the Philippines in the aftermath of the strongest typhoon ever to make landfall.