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Who killed Keith Olbermann?

Tonight on “Countdown With Keith Olbermann”—the highest rated program on MSNBC—the host who styled himself as part Edward R. Murrow and part Howard Beale announced that he had “been told” this was his last show. What the hell happened?

The network hastily released a vague statement that Olbermann and the network “have ended their contract.” Olbermann had been the most important liberal commentator on television; that mantle is now passed to MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow. “The Last Word with Lawrence O’Donnell” will take over Olbermann’s time slot.

After 8 years on MSNBC, and a long career in television, Olbermann will surface again somewhere. Internet options abound—if work in TV is contractually out of the question. The New York Times says, “Mr. Olbermann did not discuss any future plans, but NBC executives said one term of his settlement will keep him from moving to another network for an extended period of time.”

Settlement? Told this is his last show? It sure sounds like he was fired. But for what reason? Olbermann, confronted by a local WNBC reporter as he left his Rockefeller Plaza studio, said he couldn’t talk about it—thereby ensuring the rest of us will.

Were this a murder mystery, our prime suspect would be Comcast, which is about to take over NBC from General Electric. They’re a cable company, so they’re easy to hate. The connection is so easy to make that NBC saw fit to deny that Comcast had anything to do with this.

If we look for Olbermann’s enemies, we could find many, but most of them are professional media people and politicians who engage in a sort of fencing, sparring with each other for self-gain, entertainment and sport. Their interests are served by Olbermann keeping his job.

Olbermann’s biggest enemy is himself, because of his known disdain for management and rules—like the network rules preventing him from donating money to politicians, which he broke. Drama follows Olbermann, as it does many people with intelligence, talent and untempered opinions.

Olbermann is a good writer. His moving “Special Comment” segments were frequently shared online for days after the show aired, and highly influential among liberals. Yet in his 3-minute farewell, Olbermann was uncharacteristically boring. He threw only one punch, at ESPN, which fired him 13 years ago.

And he made one curious statement: “There were many occasions, particularly over the last two-and-a-half years, where all that surrounded this show, but never the show itself, were just too much for me.” What could that mean?

The exit was so abrupt it was like a radio exit—where a host is on one day, fired at the end of his shift, and never is heard on the station again. TV news tends to be more graceful at phasing hosts out, as CNN did recently with the retirement of Larry King.

Olbermann closed tonight’s show with his signature sign-off, borrowed from Murrow: “Good night and good luck.” Surely we have not heard the last of Olbermann. Fired perhaps, silenced surely not. He’ll land another media gig somewhere. At minimum he’ll write a book. One smart guess would be that, like that couple who keeps breaking up and getting back together, he’ll land back at MSNBC. He worked there before in the late 1990s, left in a huff, and came back later invigorated, with more swagger and higher ratings.

Until that happens, we’ll wait for the leaks to hear the real story.

Update, 11:55 p.m.: Howard Kurtz at The Daily Beast adds this detail: “A knowledgeable official said the move had nothing to do with Comcast taking control of NBC next week, although the cable giant was informed when it received final federal approval for the purchase that Olbermann would be leaving the cable channel. This official described the dramatic divorce—Olbermann was about halfway through a four-year, $30 million contract—as mutual.”

— By Daryl Lang. Filed under Television

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