As part of a two-part interview this column conducted last October with Keith Olbermann, 14 months into his second marriage with ESPN, I asked the commentator to self-evaluate how his ESPN tenure had gone.
“Very good,” Olbermann said at the time. “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. [ESPN president] John Skipper, [ESPN programming head] Norby Williamson and I had 2 1/2 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!”
Nine months later, the marriage of ESPN and Olbermann—the couple’s second—has once again ended in divorce. The network confirmed on Wednesday night what author James Andrew Miller reported earlier in the day: ESPN is not renewing Olbermann’s contract, which expires at the end of this month.
“Keith is a tremendous talent who has consistently done timely, entertaining and thought-provoking work since returning to ESPN,” the network said in a statement. “While the show's content was distinctive and extremely high quality, we ultimately made a business decision to move in another direction. We wish Keith nothing but the best and trust that his skill and ability will lead him to another promising endeavor.”
Olbermann declined comment via his management. It is not clear how many more appearances he will make on ESPN2.
The news was not surprising for longtime Olbermann watchers. Last week The Hollywood Reporter’s Marisa Guthrie—well connected to Camp Olbermann—reported that ESPN management told the host to stop doing “commentary” on his ESPN2 show as a condition of extending Olbermann's contract, which comes up later this year. ESPN PR responded immediately and forcefully, saying “Olbermann has never been told any topic is off limits for his commentary nor has continuation of it been part of any conversation about his future at the company.”
Along the same lines, both Deadspin and The Big Lead wrote pieces stating that contract talks had broken down between Olbermann and ESPN, and that Olbermann was likely gone from the company. The backdrop for all of this is clear cost-cutting in Bristol. The days of big money talent renewals at ESPN, at least in the short term, appear over. Guthrie reported via sources that ESPN management made Olbermann an offer to take his show (produced out of New York City) to the network’s headquarters in Bristol or to the Los Angeles facility to save money, but was rebuffed. An ESPN spokesperson said that moving the Olbermann show to either Bristol or Los Angeles was never discussed.
To his credit, Olbermann caused little external consternation for ESPN management on this go-around, except for one Twitter incident where he made some truly inane statements to Penn State students. He was pulled off the air for a week and was appropriately apologetic. As for his daily content, what he provided ESPN was pointed and intelligent commentary, and he was often ahead of the curve on the intersection of sports and social commentary. He repeatedly challenged the NFL, much like former ESPN employee Bill Simmons, giving ESPN a look of independence with its most important television partner. (ESPN pays the NFL $1.9 billion per year for rights to its games, far more than any other network.)
So what went wrong in the end? Well, the Olbermann camp would offer, among other things, that it was promised certain assignments from ESPN management—including hosting SportsCenter—which were never fulfilled. Money, as always, was undoubtedly an issue.
“ESPN thought about it, but then decided they weren’t going to open up SportsCenter to Olbermann, nor any of their other major vehicles,” Miller said. “Once they realized they weren’t actually going to use him in significant roles and at significant times, keeping him no longer made sense. John Skipper played George Steinbrenner with several incredibly expensive talent deals in recent years, but those days are over. Olbermann was far from being a high-priced ticket by today’s Bristol standards, but a new contract wouldn’t have been insignificant. Roles and dollars were the driving forces here, not behavior.”
Given we are soon to embark on an election year, no one would be surprised if Olbermann returned to political television. (A suggestion here is for Simmons and Olbermann to partner in doing something, even as a one-off.) ESPN staffers are usually reticent to offer public thoughts when a staffer leaves under not optimal conditions, but Steve Levy, the longtime SportsCenter anchor, offered praise for Olbermann on Twitter Wednesday night. Tweeted Levy: “1 man, 2 N's... @KeithOlbermann - thank you #talent.”