Keith Olbermann Defaces A-Rod; Reveals Apologies, Drama Behind ESPN Return

9:00 AM PST 08/14/2013 by Marisa Guthrie
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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).

After multiple meetings with ESPN in 2012 -- Williamson wanted to have Olbermann back at the network and on ESPN2 by September of that year, just in time for the football season -- things cooled as the network pursued Saturday Night Live's Meyers, who hosted the ESPY Awards in 2010 and 2011. They heated up again after Olbermann's March settlement with Current -- and after Meyers had reached a new agreement to stay at NBC and succeed Jimmy Fallon on Late Night.

Olbermann's return to ESPN comes as the network is girding for a potential incursion from Fox Sports, which will launch its own 24/7 cable sports channel, Fox Sports 1, Aug. 17 in 90 million homes against more than 100 million for ESPN and ESPN2 . But FS1 will not have the NFL, the top ratings draw in sports. (Last season, Monday Night Football on ESPN averaged more than 12.8 million viewers, and NBC's Sunday Night Football stands as the No. 1 program on all of TV with 21.5 million viewers.) When it launches, FS1 will be in the midst of NASCAR; there also will be UFC fights. And co-presidents Randy Freer and Eric Shanks have spent the past year gobbling up rights including Major League Baseball, Pac-12 college football, NASCAR, FIFA World Cup Soccer and U.S. Open Golf. The network also has hired a cadre of anchors, correspondents and contributors including Erin Andrews, Charissa Thompson, Donovan McNabb, Gary Payton, Andy Roddick and 82-year-old Regis Philbin, who will host the 5 p.m. program Crowd Goes Wild.

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Fox Sports executives are all but taking credit for Olbermann's return to ESPN. "I don't know if Keith Olbermann would be back if Fox Sports Live [the network's 11 p.m. show that will go head-to-head with Olbermann] or Fox Sports 1 did not exist," Fox Sports executive vp Scott Ackerson told reporters during a conference call July 25. David Hill, the outspoken former Fox Sports chief who now is charged with righting American Idol, among his other 21st Century Fox duties, has said that FS1 will be the fun alternative to ESPN; "jock-ularity" is the catchall he's coined to describe the network's tone.

Skipper brushes off the boasting and the horse-race analogies.

"It's just positioning. It has no basis in actuality," he says. "Our position is authority and personality. The personality gives you plenty of license to have fun. You're going to need authority when you have A-Rod and 12 other players suspended. If all you're going to do is have fun, I'm not quite sure how you're going to handle Johnny Manziel or a scandal at Penn State. The sports world is large and complex and requires lots of tones and abilities. I think their position is fairly limiting, and I think it's inaccurate to suggest that we're the boring old dreadful storm troopers."

Skipper's tenure as president of ESPN, which began in January 2012 when he took over from longtime chief George Bodenheimer, has seen multiple out-of-the-box personnel moves, such as securing statistician and author Nate Silver in a deal that includes Silver's well-trafficked FiveThirtyEight.com.

"I'm getting a lot of, 'Gee, with Nate Silver and Keith Olbermann, does this portend some sort of shift?' " notes Skipper, adding that ESPN has a history of working with original thinkers, including David Halberstam, the Pulitzer-winning journalist covering civil rights, foreign policy and sports; Ralph Wiley, sports journalist and literary collaborator to Spike Lee; and Hunter S. Thompson. "I'm very happy to have [Silver and Olbermann]; it does portend that we're kind of open for business with smart guys."

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"The last time I wrote on a chalkboard was probably seventh grade," says Olbermann.

It is Wednesday night, Aug. 7, and Olbermann, Horowitz and about a dozen others are jammed into a small studio in Chinatown for a promotional shoot. Two prop guys wheel a chalkboard onto the black seamless backdrop. Director Darryl Mascarenhas wants Olbermann to write on the board, though he acknowledges verisimilitude would call for a white board, which typically is found in newsrooms and coaches' offices. Mascarenhas suggests Olbermann scratch out a field play with Xs and Os. Olbermann suggests a nightly rundown for his show. As he approaches the chalkboard, the image of Bart Simpson repeatedly scrawling out an admonishment during after-school detention comes to mind. "What do you want him to write?" deadpans Horowitz. " 'I will respect authority. I will respect authority. I will respect authority.' "

Olbermann cracks a small smile. Later, when asked why he thinks he has a reputation for being a little hard on the furniture, he reasons: "I never took seriously the idea of deference [to management] just because they were my employers. It's like, 'Well, but if you have the wrong idea and I have the right one, what difference does it make where it came from?' "

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