10:06 p.m. | Updated For nearly a year now, Al Gore and Joel Hyatt have been building their liberal cable news channel, Current TV, with the mercurial television anchorman Keith Olbermann at its center.
This week, the center collapsed.
Current said on Friday afternoon that it had fired Mr. Olbermann — one of the nation’s most prominent progressive speakers — just a year into his five-year, $50 million contract. It was the culmination of months of murky disputes between Mr. Olbermann and the channel that he was supposed to save from the throes of ratings oblivion.
Yet as inevitable as it might have seemed to some in the television business who know the long history of antipathy between Mr. Olbermann and his employers, it was nonetheless shocking to his fans, to his detractors and to staff members at Current when the announcement was made.
Forty-five minutes afterward, in a stream of Twitter messages, Mr. Olbermann threatened to take legal action against the channel and said its claims about him were untrue. In part because of the prospect of litigation, executives at Current declined to comment on the firing on Friday. But they immediately named as his replacement Eliot Spitzer, the former governor of New York, who took over Mr. Olbermann’s 8 p.m. time slot on Friday night.
By replacing Mr. Olbermann, Mr. Spitzer is getting a second shot at an 8 p.m. talk show; in 2010, two years after he resigned the governorship after he admitted having patronized a prostitution ring, he led a short-lived show on CNN. It was canceled in mid-2011.
In a letter posted on Current’s Web site, Mr. Gore and Mr. Hyatt wrote, “We are confident that our viewers will be able to count on Governor Spitzer to deliver critical information on a daily basis.”
With those words — “on a daily basis” — the founders of Current hinted at one of the reasons for Mr. Olbermann’s termination.
He clashed early and often with Mr. Hyatt, and especially with David Bohrman, a former CNN executive who was installed as president of Current last summer. The clashes became visible when Mr. Olbermann started anchoring his program, in front of a funereal black backdrop, apparently out of frustration about technical difficulties.
Mr. Olbermann also declined Current’s requests to host special hours of primary election coverage in January, causing lawyers from both sides to intercede. Eventually an election coverage plan was cobbled together, but in January and February, he continued to miss many days of work, as he himself acknowledged on his Twitter page. He attributed some of his absences to throat problems.
I’d like to apologize to my viewers and my staff for the failure of Current TV.
Editorially, Countdown had never been better. But for more than a year I have been imploring Al Gore and Joel Hyatt to resolve our issues internally, while I’ve been not publicizing my complaints, and keeping the show alive for the sake of its loyal viewers and even more loyal staff. Nevertheless, Mr. Gore and Mr. Hyatt, instead of abiding by their promises and obligations and investing in a quality news program, finally thought it was more economical to try to get out of my contract.
It goes almost without saying that the claims against me implied in Current’s statement are untrue and will be proved so in the legal actions I will be filing against them presently. To understand Mr. Hyatt’s “values of respect, openness, collegiality and loyalty,” I encourage you to read of a previous occasion Mr. Hyatt found himself in court for having unjustly fired an employee. That employee’s name was Clarence B. Cain.
In due course, the truth of the ethics of Mr. Gore and Mr. Hyatt will come out. For now, it is important only to again acknowledge that joining them was a sincere and well-intentioned gesture on my part, but in retrospect a foolish one. That lack of judgment is mine and mine alone, and I apologize again for it.
Keith Olbermann was informed Thursday morning that Current was terminating its five-year, $50 million contract with its star anchor.
The network sent an e-mail to Olbermann’s agent, Nick Khan at ICM, on Thursday morning stating that Olbermann was being let go for “material, serial breach of contract” and informed him thatEliot Spitzer would take Countdown’s 8 p.m. time slot effective immediately. (Spitzer will keep Olbermann’s staff and film his show, Viewpoint, out of the same Manhattan studio.)
According to knowledgeable sources, the issues were Olbermann’s repeated unauthorized absences as well as “sabotaging the network” and “attacking Current and its executives.”
Current has asserted that Olbermann missed 19 out of 41 working days in January and February. Then on Monday, Feb. 27, Olbermann asked for a vacation day on the following Monday, March 5, one day before the Super Tuesday GOP primaries. Olbermann was told that he could not have the day off, and if he took it, he would be in breach of contract. He took the day off. But he was on the air the following day for Current’s Super Tuesday coverage.
With a split between Olbermann and Current inevitable, Current began talking to Spitzer — who has been a guest on Countdown –late last year, according to sources. But many industry observers assumed it would be Olbermann who extricated himself from Current. In January, Olbermann’s lawyer, Patricia Glaser, was exploring whether Current violated Olbermann’s contract by pre-empting Countdown for Politically Direct coverage of the Iowa caucuses with network personalities Cenk Uygur, Jennifer Granholm and co-founder Al Gore.