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ESPN and Keith Olbermann may be headed toward a tough negotiation to keep the outspoken host on the sports network. Sources tell The Hollywood Reporter that ESPN has floated a highly problematic condition for an extension of Olbermann’s initial two-year deal: that he cease engaging in “commentary” on his ESPN2 program.
The issue likely stems from Olbermann’s critical assessment of the NFL’s handling of the Ray Rice domestic abuse scandal that exploded last summer when an elevator video of Rice punching then-fiancee Janay Palmer in the face surfaced after the NFL had imposed a slap-on-the-wrist, two-game suspension on the Baltimore Ravens star running back. Olbermann repeatedly hammered NFL commissioner Roger Goodell. In a lengthy commentary at the top of his Aug. 1 broadcast, he called on the commissioner to “resign” after what Olbermann described as a “weak, damaging and almost enabling reaction” to the episode.
The NFL has been pilloried throughout the media — and also faced pressure from advertisers — for its handling of a string of violent incidents involving its players. ESPN’s highly regarded investigative series Outside the Lines was a leader in reporting on the scandal.
Olbermann is not the only ESPN personality who has been critical of Goodell and the league. Bill Simmons‘ profane criticism of Goodell was likely the tipping point for his departure from the network after nearly 15 years, during which Simmons built the online site Grantland and also co-created the award-winning documentary series 30 for 30.
ESPN walks a particularly fine line in how its reporters and personalities handle the professional sports leagues that are so critical to the network’s success. ESPN’s Monday Night Football deal (which extends through 2021) is worth $15.2 billion to the NFL. It is the richest rights deal among the NFL’s TV partners — which also includes CBS, Fox and NBC — in part because it comes with extensive highlight rights critical to feeding content to ESPN’s myriad sports programs. ESPN has had MNF since 2006, with the current deal representing an increase of more than 70 percent — $1.9 billion per year up from $1.1 billion — over the previous agreement. And while NFL schedulers have historically worked to spread marquee matchups among its TV partners, the upcoming MNF schedule is viewed as one pointedly lacking in high-interest games, with multiple sources inside ESPN’s Bristol, Conn., headquarters believing the “terrible” schedule is “pay back for Simmons and Olbermann,” as one source put it.
And there are signs that ESPN’s spending may need to be reined in. Though ESPN parent Disney realized gains in second-quarter earnings, operating income at Disney media networks — which includes ABC, ESPN and the company’s kid-targeted cable channels — fell 2 percent due to rising programming and production costs at ESPN.
Olbermann’s return to ESPN two years ago was something of a surprising homecoming given his clashes with management during his first stint at the network. A talented writer and anchor, he built his reputation on ESPN’s SportsCenter with co-host Dan Patrick in the 1980s. Together they brought a wry humor to the heretofore by-the-numbers highlight show, launching countless imitators of what would eventually become the norm across the industry. By all accounts Olbermann has had few run-ins with management during his current stint there, though he was suspended for four days earlier this year after popping off at Penn State students on Twitter. He took full blame for the incident when he returned, admitting that he had been “stupid and immature.”
And Olbermann’s on-air commentaries — unlike his tweets — are vetted by ESPN producers who have been known to request changes, say sources. There was some frustration with his initial 11 p.m. time slot on ESPN2. Because it was preceded by live sports, his show was frequently shifted to the wee hours. At one point, Olbermann was pre-empted for several nights by women’s softball. But last September, ESPN permanently shifted Olbermann to 5 p.m.
Sources say that ESPN management signaled their discomfort with Olbermann’s commentaries a few days after news of Simmons’ imminent departure from ESPN broke last May, when ESPN president John Skipper abruptly told The New York Times that he had decided not to renew Simmons’ deal. (Simmons learned of Skipper’s decision when the Times tweeted its scoop on May 8.)
Olbermann’s current deal is up in August. Skipper has said in the past that he intends to keep Olbermann. But he also said the same about Simmons. Of course, while Olbermann has many fans in the sports arena, he also is an established progressive voice — and reliable conservative foe. It is still possible that he’ll stay at ESPN. But with a presidential election around the corner, he may be itching to get back to political commentary.
In a statement in response to this story, ESPN said: “Keith Olbermann has never been told any topic is off limits for his commentary nor has continuation of it been part of any conversation about his future at the company.”
July 1, 12:50 p.m. Updated with ESPN’s statement.
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