Salvation?

03.30.12

Keith Olbermann’s Firing at Current TV Could Be his Ruin or his Salvation

Now that Al Gore has fired Keith Olbermann from his post at Current TV, will it spell the cable network’s end and the ruin of Olbermann—or will it be good for both? Stay tuned.

It’s hard to know whom to root for in the coming legal showdown between Keith Olbermann and Al Gore, the former a widely reviled liberal polemicist who cannot hold a job in cable TV and the latter a failed presidential candidate who launched a cable network in 2005 seemingly just for the fun of running it into the ground.

The ground got a lot closer on Thursday when Gore canned Olbermann, at once his worst nightmare and his foundering Current TV’s last real shot at success. The former vice president and his partner Joel Hyatt put out a statement “to viewers” in the pre-weekend news hole of Friday afternoon accusing Olbermann of breach of contract, meaning they have no plans to pay out the $50 million they reportedly owe him. A source suggests the figure is actually much lower, and in any event, it includes an equity stake in a television network no one watches.

Well, not no one: Around 177,000 viewers tuned in to watch Olbermann’s 8 p.m. “Countdown” broadcast at Current on the nights he turned up to work to host it. (Gore and Hyatt accuse him of breach for refusing to anchor many nights, including such important ones as the Iowa caucuses.) By contrast, Olbermann was pulling in around a million viewers from his old perch at MSNBC, from which he departed acrimoniously just 14 months ago. According to a statement from Current, Olbermann will be replaced by prostitute-aficionado Eliot Spitzer, who was fired in July from CNN.

The anchor, who divided his time at Current between feuding with his bosses and tweeting pictures of the sunset, responded to the network’s statement via Twitter, accusing Gore and Hyatt of not upholding their end of the bargain and vowing to sue. “In due course, the truth of the ethics of Mr. Gore and Mr. Hyatt will come out,” he wrote.

It is hardly a shocking denouement to a relationship that seemed doomed virtually from the start. After luring Olbermann with praise and the promise of riches and autonomy early last year, Gore and Hyatt quickly found out that the big star they thought they bought actually owned them. According to network sources, Olbermann bristled at the amount of money being invested in his show. He was frustrated not to have ultimate authority over other network hiring decisions. A committed nondriver, he complained about his car service.

Tensions escalated into a crisis in the fall of 2011, and Gore found himself pleading with Olbermann to stay at the network and make nice. It didn’t work. Olbermann refused to participate in Current’s election night coverage, and when the New York Times broke the story, it threw Current’s internal dysfunction into public view. When I asked network president David Bohrman, a successful and well-liked veteran of CNN, how it was possible to build a network around a person who threw tantrums and refused to take executives’ calls, his reply was “Keith is a unique guy.” That was two months ago.

What will happen now that unique Keith and flailing Current are splitting up? Perhaps the separation will revitalize each side. Or perhaps both will end up on parallel glide paths to obscurity.

Before he took the Current gig, Olbermann gave some indications he was planning to go out on his own, as Glenn Beck has done quite successfully since his parting from Fox News. Olbermann has a fierce and adoring core audience in his “Friends of Keith” and, for someone who has clashed bitterly with a string of bosses, it might be better to be self-employed.

Gore found himself pleading with Olbermann to stay at the network and make nice. It didn’t work.

Current may have a tougher path to prosperity. For the duration of an election year that Gore and Hyatt once hoped would catapult Current into relevance, Spitzer will lead a prime time line-up that includes Cenk Uygur and former Michigan governor Jennifer Granholm. The network makes the vast majority of its revenue from carriage agreements, according to analysts, and unless Current manages to haul itself out of the ratings basement, many of those contracts are likely to be substantially reduced or cancelled once they come up for renewal in coming years.

But in the short term, Olbermann and Gore will do battle in court. If the first shots fired are any indication, it’s likely to be messy and brutal. In the absence of any other ratings drivers, perhaps Current might consider broadcasting the proceedings in prime time.