Keith Olbermann’s MSNBC Exit: Yet More Speculation

The speculation on Keith Olbermann's abrupt departure from MSNBC's top-rated show continues. Was he fired? Did he quit? Did the Comcast overlords push?

The speculation on Keith Olbermann’s abrupt departure from MSNBC’s top-rated show continues.  Was he fired?  Did he quit?  Did the Comcast overlords push?

Bill Carter reports for NYT that the network isn’t saying and that Olbermann has been paid not to say:

For the last several weeks, Mr. Olbermann and the network have been in negotiations to end his successful run on MSNBC, according to executives involved in the talks who requested anonymity because the talks were confidential. The deal was completed on Friday, and Mr. Olbermann made the announcement on his final “Countdown” hours later.

Friday’s separation agreement between MSNBC and Mr. Olbermann includes restrictions on when he can next lead a television show and when he can give interviews about the decision to end his association with the news channel.

The executives involved in the discussions confirmed that the deal carries limitations for Mr. Olbermann in terms of when he can next work on television, though he will be able to take a job in radio or on any forum on the Internet. The deal also prohibits the host from commenting publicly on the deal, the executives confirmed.


The decision was completed one year to the day from the last time NBC decided to end a relationship with an on-air star: Conan O’Brien. Mr. O’Brien agreed in the deal not to start up a new television show for nine months, and not to grant interviews for five months. The executives involved in the discussions with Mr. Olbermann said his agreement was not dissimilar to Mr. O’Brien’s.

Dominic Patten and Sharon Waxman, writing at something called The Wrap, say Olbermann has plans to create a “media empire.”

But the sudden departure has a history, and the timing does not rule out a preemptive MSNBC move. The gadfly commentator first told the network last April that he wanted to leave and began negotiating his exit then, according to an individual with knowledge of the situation.

Olbermann abandoned the notion of leaving at that time but revived his plans in recent weeks with new representation from the talent agency ICM.

With two years left on his $7 million a year contract, Olbermann was seeking a full exit package but he really has his eye on creating his own media empire in the style of Huffington Post, according to the individual. That way, Olbermann would control his own brand and, in his view, potentially earn far more as an owner.

Good luck with that. Olbermann is a huge brand — certainly moreso than Arianna Huffington, David Frum, or Tucker Carlson. Or even Tina Brown. But it’s going to be hard to top $7 million a year running a website.

But Patten and Waxman undercut the “months of planning” story later in the report:

The departure of Olbermann, who recently left his long time talent agent Jean Sage to work with a troika at ICM, came so abruptly that MSNBC was still running promos for him and his show an hour after he signed off for the last time.

My initial headline that he was “fired” was perhaps a bit forward leaning, reading between the lines of the statements made by Olbermann and MSNBC chief Griffin.  Additionally, it seems odd to me that a network would pay someone to stop hosting their top rated show if it was the talent’s decision.  It may be months before the real story is known.

FILED UNDER: Media, Quick Takes
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. tom p says:

    >>>Additionally, it seems odd to me that a network would pay someone to stop hosting their top rated show if it was the talent’s decision.<<<

    Sounds to me like both wanted to end the relationship, the only question were how and with what financial arrangements.

  2. Patrick T. McGuire says:

    ” It may be months before the real story is known.”

    Except that in a couple of weeks it will be “keith who?”.

  3. PD Shaw says:

    I’d assume that his regular contract would have had a non-compete clause in it. The exit package was probably just the vehicle where Olbermann and MSNBC tried to bargain better terms for each other. Olbermann sounds like he may have wanted less money in exchange for the ability to go back to work somewhere else sooner.

    Recall Rather was paid his full contract amount and shelved by CBS, so that he couldn’t work. He sued and lost.

  4. André Kenji says:

    Part of the problem is that Olbermann began to take long “vacations” and work leaves. It´s safe to say that at least last year he wasn´t presenting his show in something like three months. And I´m not considering the time that he wasn´t presenting his show because his father was ill.

    Phil Griffin already have said that he did not want Olbermann to comment NFL games on NBC because of that. No would want a employee that is so much absent from his work.

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  6. Tom Kelly says:

    What a colossal waste of talent. He was superb at ESPN and I really enjoyed him. Once he moved to MSNBC if I stumbled upon his show as I was channel surfing, I only watched him for as long as it took to change the channel.

    It seems fitting to send him off in his own pompous, “I’m smarter than you” style.

    “Out, out, brief candle! Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage and then is heard no more: it is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”…. and don’t let the door hit you in the ass on the way out—WIlliam Shakespeare and Me circa 1606 and 2011 AD.

    Seek redemption, it is never too late.