How Will the Standoff Between Keith Olbermann and MSNBC End?

Nov 07 2010 Published by under Featured News

The twist and turns keep coming in the saga of Keith Olbermann’s suspension, with the latest being that Countdown was suspended for refusing to apologize on the air for his political donations. Instead of a rules violation, what we have here is a power play between MSNBC and their top anchor. If the network holds firm, Olbermann could be sitting at home for a long, long time.

Mike Allen of Politico reported that Olbermann was suspended, not for the donations, but for refusing to apologize, “Network sources tell Playbook that Keith Olbermann was suspended because he refused to deliver an on-camera mea culpa, which would have allowed him to continue anchoring “Countdown.” Olbermann told his bosses he didn’t know he was barred from making campaign contributions, although he is resisting saying that publicly. Olbermann may not hold as many cards as he thinks. He makes $7 million a year and MSNBC’s prime time is not as dependent on him as it was before the addition of Rachel Maddow and Lawrence O’Donnell, who make considerably less.”

What we have here folks is a good old fashioned power play, but it looks like Olbermann is overplaying his hand on this one. As Allen pointed out, MSNBC’s prime time lineup doesn’t need Olbermann the way that it used to. Countdown’s ratings have pretty much flat lined. While Olbermann has been posting some of his worst quarter year ratings ever, Rachel Maddow’s show has continued to grow. With the addition of Lawrence O’Donnell, MSNBC’s prime time lineup is not as dependent on Keith Olbermann as it used to be.

I suggested last month that Maddow’s success could lead MSNBC to transition away from Olbermann and his kind of show, “The folks upstairs at MSNBC seem to have taken notice of Maddow’s success as well. As evidenced by Lawrence O’Donnell’s toned down show, the network could be moving away from finding the next Olbermann, and towards more RMS style programming. If Maddow’s recent success continues she soon will replace Olbermann as the face of MSNBC, and she and her program will be one of the most unlikely success stories in the history of cable news.”

It can be argued that Rachel Maddow is more valuable to MSNBC right now that Keith Olbermann is. I wonder how much support Olbermann’s fans will continue to give him when they realize he is suspended for refusing to apologize on the air. They are missing out on their favorite show because Keith Olbermann is being stubborn. This is not a case of an unjust suspension for violating a rule. It is a case of insubordination. Olbermann wasn’t treated differently than Joe Scarborough and Pat Buchanan, and his suspension would have been avoided if he would have agreed to apologize on the air for not getting prior approval for his donations.

Given what we know now, it makes sense why Keith Olbermann was suspended indefinitely without pay. When your boss asks or tells you to do something, as long as the request is reasonable, the employee faces discipline if they say no. I wrote yesterday that the longer this thing goes, the worse it will get for MSNBC, but this may not be the case, if Olbermann was suspended because he is trying to pull a power play.

The reality is that unless Countdown’s ratings completely fall off the cliff, the network can afford to let Olbermann sit at home and be stubborn. Ratings usually decline over the holiday season anyway, so MSNBC could let Olbermann sit until January 2011. Now that the real reason for the suspension has been made public, it is very possible that both sides will dig in and not budge, which would be unfortunate for the real losers in this situation, the viewers.

Is either side in this situation thinking about how their pissing contest is affecting the viewers? It certainly doesn’t seem that way. I am not sure if Olbermann should apologize or not, but it was his not to apologize on the air, so the ball is in his court. This will end when he wants to end. Keith Olbermann is not going to walk away from a $7 million a year contract, and unless the 8 PM ratings plummet, MSNBC doesn’t have to budge. What I thought would be a simple short term suspension looks like a messy personality conflict, but if anybody cares about the viewers, this will be resolved ASAP.

Update: According to MSNBC President Phil Griffin, Olbermann will be back on Tuesday, “I have determined that suspending Keith through and including Monday night’s program is an appropriate punishment for his violation of our policy. We look forward to having him back on the air Tuesday night.”

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