Keith Olbermann Defaces A-Rod; Reveals Apologies, Drama Behind ESPN Return
He once "napalmed" his former network. Now he's back, helming a new late-night show, and divulging the full back story of how he said sorry, to whom and his true feelings for Al Gore (hint: there is name-calling).
If Olbermann's intellect and confidence have made him a star, his inability to suffer fools has left a trail of hurt feelings. Significantly, Olbermann's new show will not be based at the scene of his past scuffles, the network's sprawling Bristol, Conn., campus. Rather, it will be filmed at ABC's Times Square Studios in Manhattan. "There was no intention to do the show in Bristol," says Skipper. "While we wanted to bring Keith back, to bring him back and march him through the halls of Bristol is probably less than a good idea."
If he won't be running into old adversaries in the office cafeteria, he nevertheless embarked on an apology tour of sorts. He published a lengthy 2002 mea culpa on Salon to former SportsNight colleague Kolber, whose pieces Olbermann used to attack on air. And he still seems sorry that she apparently found him so difficult to work with. "Of all the things that I regret, one is that it happened. I mean, you don't want to provoke anybody to tears but especially a female colleague in what was not a female-conducive environment at that point. It was 10-to-1 men on the [Bristol] campus," he says. And when he saw her at the Super Bowl in '09, "we went running at each other with a big hug."
When Olbermann left ESPN in 1997, Bob Ley -- whom Olbermann succeeded on the 11 p.m. SportsCenter -- told authors Miller and Shales: "Our long national nightmare is over. … We felt not so much relief when Keith left as unrestrained f---ing joy."
After trading e-mails and phone calls, Olbermann and Ley, who still is a sportscaster at ESPN, spoke again July 25, the day after Olbermann's Q-and-A at the Television Critics Association summer press tour in Beverly Hills. The hatchet was buried in a discussion covering his new role. "We were on the phone for 25 minutes," says Olbermann. "We had a good talk. He said, 'Anything I can do for you?' I said, 'Bob, practically speaking, when you have something you want to push, bring it to me. Don't bring it to the producers, bring it to me.' "
Another potentially acrimonious reunion was averted when Olbermann ran into former colleague and current ESPN personality Chris Berman, about whom he had been less than magnanimous in Shales and Miller's book: "When I was at CNN [where he worked in the early 1980s], we used to look at ESPN as our comic relief, because for a long time, in terms of sports news, CNN was a 10-times-better product than ESPN. I used to look at my old friend [Chris] Berman sweating away in the studio without a teleprompter, trying to read his notes. I thought, 'Thank God that there's somebody on the air in worse shape than we are.' "
Olbermann's path crossed Berman's on July 16 behind the batting cage at Citi Field during the MLB All-Star Game; it was one day before the ESPN announcement was released. According to Olbermann, he planned to reach out to Berman, "not because there was any kind of dispute" but because in the history of ESPN, Berman is a "seminal" figure. "He just looks over and nods at me, and I went, 'I got something to talk to you about,' " he recalls.
By then, news of Olbermann's impending return already had leaked. "What ensued was one of the best conversations we have had as adults," he says. "The gist of it was, 'Why would I have any objection to you coming back?' And I said, 'I'm just kissing the ring here.' And he's like, 'Yeah right.' "
He also initiated some fence-mending in a series of conversations with Mike Soltys, ESPN's longtime head of corporate communications. Soltys, who infamously told USA Today that Olbermann did not simply "burn bridges" at ESPN, he "napalmed" them, on July 17 tweeted a link to the official ESPN announcement with a photograph of a construction site with a sign reading: "Bridge Under Repair."
Of course, some bridges cannot be rebuilt. Which brings this story back to Current. Although Olbermann's position at Current became rocky less than two months after Countdown bowed in June 2011, he was blindsided when Gore and Hyatt pulled the trigger and fired him March 29 for what they characterized as "serial, material breach of his contract."
"When you're working for somebody whom you admired politically, who turns out to be a clod," says Olbermann, referring to Gore, "the scales fall from your eyes. Sorry. Al underdelivered. I mean that's just simply the case. I don't want to dwell on it, but it's true." Olbermann countersued, asking for $50 million in damages, and the case slowly proceeded to a confidential settlement in March; three months earlier, Qatari-based news organization Al Jazeera bought Current for $500 million, in all likelihood hastening the settlement. (Asked whether he is happy the Current chapter of his career is over, Olbermann quips, "Let's just say I bought gifts for my lawyers.")
Olbermann saw Gore at the arbitration meeting in San Francisco on March 12. Asked whether that was awkward, he smiles ruefully: "Two days before, I'm standing at Phoenix Municipal Stadium with my friend Bob Melvin, the manager of the Oakland A's, talking about pitching depth. Two days after that, I'm in a mediator's office, hearing myself described as, you know, akin to Stalin. We are in the middle of a legal proceeding involving large sums of money and contracts. Of course it was awkward."
But the experience with Current, he says, crystallized his desire to remake his image as something other than "this intense, belligerent, political polemicist," he says. "I left ESPN as a sportscaster mostly known for humor and insight."
As things were unraveling at Current, Olbermann's representatives set up numerous meetings for him. There was a Dec. 8, 2011, breakfast at The London in New York with Showtime entertainment president David Nevins. Coincidentally, John Cleese, a personal friend of Olbermann's, happened to be at the breakfast buffet and joined them. "He sat with us for an hour, and the only conclusion we reached was that if I was going to do a show, then John was going to have to be a correspondent," laughs Olbermann. On March 8, 2012, three weeks before he was fired from Current, he had dinner in a suite at the Carlyle Hotel with ABC News president Ben Sherwood and Sherwood's deputy Barbara Fedida. About a month later, he appeared with George Stephanopoulos on ABC's This Week's roundtable.