Keith Olbermann: Politics Won't Be Off-Limits on ESPN Show

22 FEA Keith Olbermann Portrait
Wesley Mann

"I yell up. And the people who are up are a very small club. And they like to punish you in public when they can," says Olbermann, photographed June 3 at Shoot Digital in New York.

Keith Olbermann took center stage Wednesday afternoon at the Television Critics Association's summer press tour to preview what to expect form his upcoming ESPN2 show and return to the network fold that helped launch his career.

Olbermann confirmed his return to ESPN on July 17 with a two-year deal to come back to the home where he rose to stardom as co-anchor of SportsCenter. His tenure at ESPN ended less than amicably in 1997, and in the years that followed, Olbermann took a lengthy detour into political commentary on MSNBC and briefly on Current. He has maintained a presence among the baseball faithful via his Twitter feed as well as blog posts and an appearance on MLB Network’s Hot Stove last year. The host also recently settled his $50 million legal dispute with Current over his firing from the network in March.

While rehearsals just began Tuesday night for his hour-long show, Olbermann (launching at 11 p.m. Aug. 26 on ESPN2 from ABC's Times Square studios in New York) Olbermann noted the series will focus on relevant sports topics with a mixture of perspective and commentary, interviews, panel discussions and highlights -- and potentially politics.

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"There's no such clause that said I could not talk about politics, there is no such clause referring to content about anything that we might do on the show," he said, refuting a recent New York Times report that claimed politics would be off-limits on the upcoming sports series. "There were also references to having pop culture segments and such, that was also inaccurate. I don't know where it came from; we tried to correct it as it happened. It's not the biggest mistake in the world but it's led to a bunch of questions of: How could you not talk about politics? I'm not intending to talk about politics, certainly not in the partisan sense and not in the sense that I did in the last 10 years of work that I've done, for the simple reason in that it's a sports show."

Olbermann, as he did during the press conference announcing his return to ESPN2, noted that should politics intersect with sports, that would obviously be something he'd address should the subject prove worthy.

"It's been wonderful not talking politics," he told the assembled press. "I did it for 10 years -- including a period of time I was involved with an ex-politician [Current's Al Gore], and if there's anything you'd like to do after that experience, it's a sportscast. … It was a lot of work and it took a lot out of me. It was not often that much fun, so the opportunity to go back to a place where I had a lot of fun doing SportsCenter."

During the session, Olbermann repeatedly praised ESPN and referenced his less-than-amicable split with the sports-themed network in 1997.

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"I didn't know what I was talking about," he said of remarks at the time in which he criticized the network. "The places I went to after made ESPN look, in retrospect, like a 'let's applaud Keith' network."

As for his new show, Olbermann noted it would have a mix of what makes its time-slot predecessor successful, including highlights and elements from his former MSNBC show and a similarly named segment with "The Worst Person in Sports."

"We're going to adapt that, but [Olbermann] will be a sportscast with my stamp on it," he said, noting that the first episode will likely reference his return to the ESPN team.

"It's important to acknowledge I was there before; we will be doing that on a nightly basis and we will unleash things from a time capsule on a regular basis," he said, acknowledging what he called his bad hair, glasses, clothes and teeth at the time, but not apologizing for his previous misdeeds. "I don't think the audience is that interested in hearing me come on and say, 'Good evening, I'm sorry.' If the first show references it, it's because one of the guests does."

The host, a self-proclaimed authority on 19th century baseball and memorabilia, expressed confidence that his new venture would work -- partially because of the lessons he's learned during his career. 

"One of the reasons this will work is the first thing they asked was, 'What do you want to do?'" he said, noting ESPN executives asked for his ideal guests and analysts. "We start from the point of view where my opinion isn't only respected but solicited. I'm also listening a bit more than I used to -- 193,000 percent more."

Meanwhile, Jamie Horowitz, vp original programming and production at ESPN, noted that the producers are still figuring out how to handle the three-week period when Olbermann heads to TBS to anchor the network's postseason baseball coverage in October.