Contrite Olbermann excited about 'fresh start' in return to ESPN

Wednesday July 17th, 2013

Keith Olbermann is best known for hosting political shows since leaving ESPN in 1997.
Mark J. Terrill/AP

They are among the most famous words ever uttered on ESPN's Bristol campus:

"He didn't burn bridges here," ESPN vice president of corporate communications Mike Soltys famously once told USA Today about Keith Olbermann. "He napalmed them."

Well, the bridge over the River Keith has been reconstructed. On Wednesday ESPN announced that Olbermann, who left the network in 1997 because of the increasing acrimony between the anchor and management, will return to the company to host a one-hour late-night program airing Monday through Friday on ESPN2 at 11 p.m. ET from ABC's Times Square studios in New York City. The show will be titled Olbermann and debuts Aug. 26. Olbermann will also appear on other ESPN platforms and programs, and likely write for at some point. He is signed with ESPN for two years.

"I appreciate the fresh start," Olbermann said on a conference call on Wednesday afternoon. "I am excited about this chance to put a different ending on the story of my relationship with ESPN. We are indelibly intertwined and I know we can't go back and undo everything that happened many years ago in those environs, but I would like to do my best to correct as much of it as I can and I appreciate the fresh start."

Olbermann and ESPN executives were light on the show's details but it will feature commentary, guests and celebrity sports fans, highlights and various running features. Olbermann said the show will "sum up the day for people, get people thinking and get people analyzing for the next day."

"What matters to me is that the show will be smart, provocative, informed, fun and funny, and for that I think I have the right host," said ESPN President John Skipper on the conference call.

Olbermann has spent much of the last decade doing political commentary on MSNBC and Current TV. On the topic of how much politics the show will address, Skipper said, "This is going to be a sports show and clearly a sports show, and politics and governance and elections are not going to be the subject of the show. Now, there is no prohibition against speaking about it when sports rubs against anything else in our culture -- music, film. If politics happens to intersects with sports -- you mentioned Trayvon Martin -- we would expect Keith to have some point of view there. Again, we as a network do not have an expressed, public political point of view, although we have smart, intelligent commentators who are allowed to express some points of view."

Added Olbermann: "The key three or four words about this are 'it's a sports show.' The idea that I would want to do anything that was not specifically sports-related -- even in a political context -- I don't know where that would come from. If I wanted to go and do politics, I would still be doing politics. Clearly, this is something else. There are no political segments or cultural segments planned but if the House is considering a bill to make PED use an a capital offense, we will cover it. If George W. Bush wanted to come on and talk baseball, I would be happy to have him. But we are not going to talk politics."

Olbermann, 54, said there is no content clause in his contract. "The real reason there is none is there is no need for one," Olbermann said. "They are not restraining me; they don't have to. I don't intend to be political in the sense of my previous jobs."

ESPN has been interested in an Olberman return for some time, with senior management dropping hints to reporters about the possibility for months (along with orchestrated trial balloon leaks throughout the web.) The New York Times reported on Tuesday night that Olbermann and his representatives had 14 months of "intense discussion" within ESPN and its parent, the Walt Disney Company. He previously worked for ESPN from 1992 to 1997, famously co-anchoring ESPN's SportsCenter with Dan Patrick. In 2005, Olbermann returned for a 2 ½ year tenure with ESPN Radio. Olbermann said Yankees closer Mariano Rivera had 31 career saves the last time he hosted SportsCenter. That number is now 638.

Olbermann will often immediately follow live events on ESPN2, starting with the U.S. Open tennis tournament on Aug. 26. Given the likelihood of late-night tennis during that fortnight, Olbermann will likely come on at odd times during his first two weeks on the air. Olbermann said he will still work for Turner Broadcasting during this year's baseball postseason, hosting the network's studio coverage. Skipper said he spoke with his counterpart at Turner -- David Levy -- and both networks are good with the schedule. ESPN will likely have a fill-in for Olbermann on the nights he is absent because of baseball.

On why this deal came about, Olbermann cited a litany of high-level ESPN executives including Skipper, Norby Williamson (Olbermann's old SportsCenter producer), senior vice president of global strategy, business development and business affairs Marie Donoghue, First Take engineer Jamie Horowitz, Traug Keller (a senior vice president who runs ESPN's local web sites), ESPN digital czar John Kosner, Laurie Orlando (a senior VP in charge of hiring), ESPN Films head Connor Schell and ESPN editorial consultant John Walsh. (So that's the group you should tag if you are bothered by this announcement.) The host was contrite about his previous difficulties at ESPN and reinforced his hopes to make amends by conducting himself differently during this ESPN go-around. "I could apologize 1,000 times and we could get everybody who ever took offense to something I did, and bring them all to one place and we would probably need Yankee Stadium," Olbermann said.

ESPN2 does not rate highly with the programming currently airing at 11:00 p.m. ET, a mishmash of SportsCenter, NFL Live, SportsNation, WNBA basketball and other assorted fare. The network has averaged 341,000 viewers for the time slot in 2013. Skipper said that his advertising group is "excited" about Olbermann's show but did not name any specific sponsors.

Bottom line: The move is a low risk play that has a big upside given Olbermann's name-recognition to ESPN and non-ESPN viewers and comes at a time when the network is facing a challenge from Fox Sports 1, which launches next month. On this latter note, Skipper, the ESPN president, ended Wednesday's conference call by cheekily citing Fox Sports 1's new marketing campaign, which revolves around the song and phrase "Happy Days Are Here Again."

"I read that the Fox guys think happy days are here again and I'm happy that happy days are here again for them," Skipper said. "Sorry they were not happy before because the days at ESPN have been happy for quite some time and this is another happy day for ESPN."

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