Entertainment

NBC blew it letting Olbermann walk

the New York Times' reporting Keith Olbermann's

sudden — but not entirely surprising — departure from MSNBC comes at the end.

“Give us a bit of credit for getting eight years out of him," an NBC News exec told the Times. "That’s the longest he’s been anywhere.”

True enough. And yet, count me as one of those people who believes NBC could have had KO a lot longer had it managed him, and its cable news outlet, more coherently.

As informative as the Times' story is, it is clearly told from the viewpoint of network management. And this is the same management that has always dithered over its cable-news properties, saying one thing and doing another. To refresh your memory...

1. In the early 1990s,

Roger Ailes Tom Snyder, Geraldo Rivera, Bob Berkowitz.
Fox News Channel.

2. In the late 1990s, Rivera caught fire. With his terrier-like devotion to stories like Jon-Benet and Monica, he became CNBC's biggest star and was signed to a new deal that included airtime on the NBC network. It was a story

I covered for the New York Observer, Andy Lack

Cleans Up," Lack being at the time the head of NBC News — perfectly captured the anxiety felt inside the NBC newsroom. The "real" journalists inside NBC hated Geraldo. Sure enough, he soon found his way to the door ... and the Fox News Channel.

3. And now, the squandering of Keith. (Hey, do you think he'll go to F...

nahhhhh

... well, probably not.)

I can name the moment when the relationship between NBC and Olbermann started to unravel. It was the summer of 2008. MSNBC thought it would be a great idea to have KO and

Chris Matthews as I wrote on Aug. 28, 2008, Tom Brokaw

chair, trying to be objective and all; and two, Olbermann and Matthews should never, ever, EVER work that closely together again.

The arrangement came under attack from the Bush White House and the McCain-Palin campaign. Not long after that, management changed its mind and announced that, on election night, Olbermann and Matthews would be shunted to the side and

David Gregory

put in the middle.

Olbermann gave an interview to the Times complaining that Fox News had

Brit Hume I wrote on Sept. 8

:

"I’ve been of at least two minds on the Olbermann phenomenon ... I’ve always loved 'Countdown,' but back in 2006, I did ask (along with other critics) if KO was the future face of news, and if we were all good with that. As it turns out, we are NOT all good with that. I thought the big jobs should go to the big men (and women). But the people have spoken, loudly and angrily, and so the big job will now go to MSNBC’s least MSNBC-like talent" — i.e., Gregory.

A few days later, I received this email from Olbermann:

"Thank you for the support about Election Night," he wrote sarcastically. "The entire Municipal Bus System has been over my head since last week. How nice it is to get crushed for doing what management told you to do."

Now, you can argue that KO was being overly dramatic here and typically unreasonable and creating all kinds of needless tension. But Olbermann was telling the truth. Perhaps he had let ego overrule commonsense, but he had believed his bosses when they told him he would be their Brit Hume as well as their

Bill O'Reilly.

(As it turns out, Olbermann wound up doing much of the anchoring on election night anyway, because he's a tremendous talent and neither Gregory nor Matthews could do live coverage the way he could.)

Clearly, though, the earlier humiliation marked the turning point in his relationship with network management. In his farewell remarks last Friday, Olbermann did not thank his boss and erstwhile defender, MSNBC president

Phil Griffin.

I'm only sorry I didn't catch this at the time. In hindsight I was guilty of mirroring the incoherence going on inside NBC. And now I realize that

Glenn Greenwald

and others were absolutely right to call NBC on its dithering.

To this day, NBC still does not know what to do with MSNBC. On the one hand, it enjoys making money with a prime-time lineup of liberals and progressives. On the other hand, it likes the corporate synergy of having CNBC's

Dylan Ratigan Chuck Todd Savannah Guthrie Andrea Mitchell

all anchoring daytime shows on MSNBC.

Had NBC management simply said to MSNBC, "After 6 o'clock at night, we don't care what you do. We're going home. Clean up when you're done," I doubt KO would be gone today.
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