When Keith Olbermann—the cable news heavyweight who gained famed with his fiery "Countdown" show before his infamous suspension and eventual ouster from MSNBC—took a job with the significantly less-formidable Current TV last February, the big question was, "How long before problems start?"
Rumblings of a rift have been surfacing for the last week, but Olbermann's refusal to anchor the network’s Iowa caucus coverage Tuesday night was the latest and clearest sign that all is not well between the opinionated host and Current TV brass.
“I hope Keith is part of our future, but it’s up to Keith,” an executive with Current who declined to be identified told TheWrap. "Keith set us in the right direction and we’re on that path now … and as I’ve learned over the years, everybody is replaceable.”
“I was not given a legitimate opportunity to host under acceptable conditions,” Olbermann said in a statement to The Hollywood Reporter on Wednesday. “They know it and we know it. Telling half the story is wrong.”
For now "Countdown" is back on schedule, but lawyers for both sides are discussing the problems, not the least of which include what Olbermann can and can't dictate as the network's star player.
Olbermann's attorney, the high-powered Patricia Glaser—who handled his controversial exit from MSNBC and Current TV hiring—told TheWrap that "the lawyers are communicating"; a source close to Olbermann told TheWrap that Glaser is looking to "determine his rights" as outlined in his contract, believed to be worth about $50 million over five years, according to the New York Times.
Current TV execs say that relations with the famously difficult host—particularly with CEO Joel Hyatt—have been sliding for several months.
Issues appear strongly related to CEO Mark Rosenthal's August ouster, as he and Olbermann had developed a close working relationship. “When Joel Hyatt bounced Mark Rosenthal so Hyatt could take his job, that’s when things turned out to be difficult,” one individual close to the situation reportedly said.
But apparently Olbermann's also had it with the network's repeated on-air technical difficulties, which have included satellite video cutting off and studio lights burning out. Olbermann silently addressed the latter last month by firing up a candle on his desk.
Check out this clip of the comical snafus that have plagued "Countdown" of late:
Despite the glitches (even those off the air, including an unreliable transportation service that's had guests arriving late), Olbermann has been publicly supportive of his staff:
“The team I’m fortunate enough to be a part of has produced — in my opinion and that of the veterans of the old show — the best editions of Countdown we’ve ever had,” Olbermann wrote in an email to the Hollywood Reporter. “The studio lights might go off, but the editorial illumination is better than ever.”
It's also fair to say that after eight years with MSNBC, Olbermann isn't used to Current's less-robust cash flow. The channel, privately held by Al Gore and others, is estimated to have made about $115 million in revenue in 2011, according to the research firm SNL Kagan, with a cash flow margin of 22.7 percent, according to the New York Times. The much bigger MSNBC, a unit of NBCUniversal, is estimated to have made $409 million in revenue with a cash flow margin of 45 percent.
Olbermann’s push to control all facets of "Countdown," as well as network hiring decisions, has apparently taken a toll on the patience of Current execs since the show began airing last June. But given Olbermann's well-traveled personality clashes and power struggles both at ESPN and MSNBC, Current had little room for surprise.
And if reaction to Current's Olbermann-less primary coverage is any indication, the network can't afford a protracted fight—especially when the New Hampshire primary looms next Tuesday. Jonah Goldberg called Tuesday's Current TV broadcast "hilarious":
The production values were only slightly better than local public access and on par with the sort of thing you find in the tall grass of your cable system: Pakistani talk shows, 700 Club knock-offs, rural public TV, and Ukrainian round-tables on next year’s wheat harvest.
One individual told TheWrap that if Current allows Olbermann to cover the results on his “Countdown” program, peace may return—but that must be weighed against how long senior management will tolerate what they term as “Keith being Keith.”