Was Olbermann's Abrupt Departure From MSNBC Part of a Corporate "Shakedown" Precipitated by the Comcast/NBC Merger?

So... this happened. In case you didn't hear, Keith Olbermann announced on air last night, seemingly out of the blue, that he and MSNBC were parting ways and that Countdownwould be no more, effective immediately. A brief statement from the network said that "MSNBC and Keith Olbermann have ended their contract," but was short on details. For his part, Olbermann was "very gracious and nice" in making the announcement, as fellow MSNBC host Rachel Maddow noted last night on Real Time With Bill Maher. But even Maddow, a friend of Olbermann's, said she knew "very little" about the situation.

The abrupt nature of the announcement and the lack of details surrounding it -- plus the fact that MSNBC aired a Countdownpromo in the hour after Olbermann had signed off for the last time, and had the host slated to cover Tuesday's SOTU address -- suggest that the decision was made very quickly. But why? Speculation has been intense on the blogosphere these past 12 hours. (As Salonjourno Alex Pareene quipped on Twitterlast night, "For [Olbermann's] final act, he forced media reporters to work on a Friday night when they were all already half in the bag.")

One of the reigning theories for now is that there's a connection between Olbermann's departure and the controversial NBC/Comcast merger that was approved by the FCC this week. Sam Gustin at Wired.com reports:

The FCC approved the $30 billion media and entertainment entity three days ago...

Olbermann had been an outspoken critic of the merger....

The move raised questions about how the new Comcast-NBC Universal entity would treat the political programming on its stations.

“Keith Olbermann’s announcement  tonight, the very same week that the government blessed the Comcast-NBC merger, raises serious concern for anyone who cares about free speech,” Marvin Ammori, the University of Nebraska law school professor and free speech advocate, told Wired.com by email. “Comcast proved expert in shaking down the government to approve its merger,” Ammori said. “Comcast’s shakedown of NBC has just begun.”

Comcast is denying that it played any part in an Olbermann ouster, noting that the NBC deal won't go into effect until next week. But the timing definitely smells of fish, and it's not a stretch to imagine Comcast wanting to get rid of the liberal host. Even Glenn Beck predicted back in November that a post-merger MSNBC "won't feature Keith Olbermann."

Meanwhile, Mediaite cites anonymous sources at MSNBC who say Olbermann and the network "were headed for a breakup long before Comcast’s rise to power" and that the move was not directly precipitated by the merger:

While Olbermann and his iconic Countdown have been immensely important in the resurgence of MSNBC, Olbermann’s friction with management has been a sticking point. At many points–including the recent suspension over political contributions–tensions rose so high as to lead to serious discussions inside MSNBC about firing their star.

With Maddow enjoying both immense popularity inside MSNBC and very strong ratings for her Rachel Maddow Show, Olbermann’s invincibility as the heart and soul of MSNBC’s brand became softer. In recent weeks, sources tell Mediaite there have been meetings on the topic of Keith Olbermann and his future at the network. Did Comcast–as many Countdown viewers seem to suspect–order Olbermann out? It appears that the end of the Olbermann era at MSNBC was not “ordered” by Comcast, nor was it a move to tone down the network’s politics. Instead, sources inside the network say it came down to the more mundane world of office politics–Olbermann was a difficult employee, who clashed with bosses, colleagues and underlings alike, and with the Comcast-related departure of Jeff Zucker, and the rise of Maddow and O’Donnell, the landscape shifted, making an Olbermann exit suddenly seem well-timed.

More details -- and more speculation -- are sure to come as the story develops.

AlterNet / By Lauren Kelley

Posted at January 22, 2011, 5:50am

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