Does Olbermann Ouster Mean Comcast is Moving MSNBC to the Right?

January 22nd, 2011 10:01 AM

Just three days after the FCC approved the merger of Comcast and NBC Universal, MSNBC's contract with Keith Olbermann was terminated.

The cable news network reported at its website Saturday:

"Msnbc [sic] and Keith Olbermann have ended our contract," Phil Griffin, president of msnbc [sic], said Friday.

"Msnbc [sic] thanks Keith for his integral role in msnbc's [sic] success and we wish him well in his future endeavors," Griffin said.

The article said there was no connection between the merger approval and Olbermann's dismissal:

Msnbc [sic] spokesman Jeremy Gaines would say only that the acquisition of NBC Universal by Comcast, which received regulatory approval this week, had nothing to do with the decision.

Comcast released a statement Friday evening:

"Comcast has not closed the transaction for NBC Universal and has no operational control at any of its properties including MSNBC. We pledged from the day the deal was announced that we would not interfere with NBC Universal's news operations. We have not and we will not." Sena Fitzmaurice, Comcast spokesperson.

According to the New York Post, this wasn't an inexpensive termination:

Olbermann, in the middle of a four-year $30 million contract reportedly set to last until 2012, announced that last night's edition of his prime-time "Countdown with Keith Olbermann," would be his last.

Sources said network brass basically paid the pontificating pundit to scram by working out an agreement in which he would give up his show and continue to be paid. The garrulous gasbag will likely also have to stay off the air at least until fall under the agreement. [...]

Sources said talks between MSNBC and Olbermann about his departure had been going on for weeks, but it's not clear when the final decision to boot him was made.

Is this coming just three days after the Comcast-NBC merger was approved really a coincidence?

Out-going NBC President Jeff Zucker sent the following note to his employees Friday morning:

As you know, the deal will formally close next Friday. That means this will be my last business update and indeed my last official word to each of you as CEO. Over the last few months, I made an effort to gather with every group of employees across the company. Hopefully, I’ve had a chance to meet and thank you personally for all you have done for this company. If I didn't get to you, please accept my thanks now. I have been asked many times what I will miss the most about NBC Universal. That's easy. The wonderful people of this company. So many colleagues…so many friends. I will miss you all.

It has been a fantastic run of almost 25 years. For me, that chapter’s ending, but for all of you it’s an exciting new beginning. With Comcast, I leave you in good hands and have no doubt that you will continue to do great things. I look forward to following your progress.

With warm regards,

So, on Tuesday the FCC approved the deal. On Friday morning, Zucker issued his last business update to his staff, and hours later Olbermann said goodbye as well.

And these events are unrelated?

When you look at MSNBC's new prime time lineup, you certainly can't conclude this is the last move:

  • "Hardball" at 5PM
  • Cenk Uygur as substitute host of an un-named show at 6PM
  • "Hardball" at 7PM
  • "The Last Word" at 8PM
  • "Rachel Maddow Show" at 9PM
  • "The Ed Show" at 10PM

Is Uygur, who has been doing some regular substitute hosting for various MSNBC commentators, about to get a full-time role at the network? Has he actually proved himself worthy of his own show? Are they actually going to put him against "Special Report?"

Bret Baier has been absolutely trouncing Ed Schultz at 6PM almost tripling the MSNBCer's viewers on Thursday. Is an unknown like Uygur the answer?

In time slot after time slot, MSNBC continues to get killed by Fox News in the ratings often getting as little as one quarter the viewers of its right-leaning rival. Since the moment the merger was announced months ago, people in the industry have speculated what a new ownership team would do about this.

Are the folks at Comcast going to settle for MSNBC as an also-ran behind Fox, or are they looking to make some moves designed to make this news network more competitive? Possibly just as important, might they also be interested in appearing less partisan?

For several years, Olbermann has been the face of MSNBC. Mightn't it be wise for this face to be something far less divisive, especially for a growing media conglomerate like Comcast.

As Forbes media analyst Jeff Bercovici noted Friday evening:

Comcast has its own calculations. An intrinsically conservative corporation, it’s not overly friendly to congenital boat-rockers like Olbermann. In fact, one such individual, a former employee named Barry Nolan, sued Comcast last year, saying the cable operator fired him in order to protect its relationship with News Corp., which owns the Fox News Channel. Nolan had publicly protested an award given to Bill O’Reilly, Fox News’s biggest star. Noting that Olbermann has also frequently feuded with O’Reilly, media critic Dan Kennedy predicted last year, “Keith Olbermann may prove to be Barry Nolan writ large.”

As you can see, Bercovici isn't buying the coincidence theory.

Frankly, neither am I, for Comcast is a far different company than General Electric. Because its exclusive business is media - Comcast is now the largest cable and home internet provider in the nation as well as a growing force in television broadcasting - it might be far more concerned about the political image of MSNBC than GE was.

With many cable and internet options available to consumers, does Comcast want to jeopardize its vast customer base with hyper-partisan rhetoric on its new news network?

Seems difficult to conclude the answer to be anything other than "No" given Friday's surprise announcement, and if more changes are made to MSNBC's prime time lineup in the coming months further diminishing the network's hyper-partisanship, we may look upon January 21, 2011, as the beginning of the end of a totally disgraceful period in television journalism.

Keep your fingers crossed.