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This story appears in the new issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine:
For the new issue of The Hollywood Reporter, out in Los Angeles and New York on Thursday, Keith Olbermann sat down with senior writer Marisa Guthrie in his first wide-ranging interview since leaving MSNBC on January 21 to talk about his rocky tenure and new path at Current TV. His new show, retaining the name Countdown with Keith Olbermann, debuts on June 20 on Current TV at 8 p.m., going up against his former time slot on MSNBC.
Among the revelations:
* Olbermann got quite a pay raise to join Current TV for his second incarnation of Countdown with Keith Olbermann. The TV personality — who abruptly announced his departure from MSNBC in January — is making $10 million a year at Current, according to a source, which marks more than a 40 percent increase from his $7 million a year MSNBC wage (which, in fact, he will continue to collect for another year and a half). Current TV disputes the figure but adds it does not “disclose confidential, contractual details.”
*In addition to hosting Countdown, which debuts June 20, Olbermann is also the network’s chief news officer — making him No. 4 on the corporate ladder behind founders Al Gore and Joel Hyatt and CEO Mark Rosenthal — and has an equity stake in the company. When all is said and done, Olbermann could make as much as $100 million over the course of his five-year deal.
THE NEW SHOW
*Olbermann reveals for the first time in The Hollywood Reporter that he has hired David Shuster, whom he has recruited as his primary substitute anchor. Shuster was suspended last year from MSNBC when it came out that he had taped a pilot at rival CNN.
*The show, which will cost Current about $15 million a year to produce, with the network spending another $5 million upfront on marketing, will be paying its contributors including Michael Moore, Rolling Stone’s Matt Taibbi, Daily Kos founder Markos Moulitsas in untraditional ways. Moore will be paid through a charitable donation. Moulitsas is being paid a “token amount.”
*All this is being done by a cable channel that is available in only 60 million homes in channel Siberia (versus MSNBC’s 95 million with prime positioning). Olbermann, however, is unfazed. “It’s been fascinating, to see the assumption that this is some sort of bizarre move for me,” he says. “I have achieved what I wanted to achieve. I’m better off at some sort of independent place where they not only like what I produce but also trust me to be the one to produce it.”
*Of the time slot rivalry with MSNBC, he says, “I don’t think my former employers thought this was going to turn out quite this way. I just don’t think they thought they’d be in competition with me, so fast or at all,” Olbermann says of MSNBC, “and my understanding is this has left a certain tension over there.”
ON HIS FINAL DAYS AT MSNBC
*Olbermann says things turned for the worse after Tim Russert, one of his only allies at NBC, passed away. “Tim knew how to play them,” he says. “He managed to do that with every faction, with every complaint from the Republican side, with every complaint from the Democratic side, with every complaint from a staffer. He knew how to turn it into a conversation that ended in laughter. Tim, for the noblest of causes, could bullshit very well. And I admired him for it. It seems to sap my creative voice.”
*Later, he was yanked NBC’s Sunday Night Football Pre-Show because management said it was interfering with his day job of hosting Countdown. He says the particular transgression that got him booted was that he was caught gossiping about Zucker’s fate at the company after Comcast had announced its bid to merge with NBC Universal. “There was a lot of speculation about what would happen,” he says. “One surprisingly accurate bit of speculation on every floor of the building was, ‘I betcha they don’t keep Jeff.’ And apparently he heard that I had said this. I was there and I was a convenient punching bag and everybody would believe everything they said about me. And so off I went.”
*On the night of his final broadcast, Olbermann began the show not knowing if it was his last. In fact, when Olbermann went on air at 8 p.m. EST on January 21, neither he nor his staff knew this was his final broadcast. Olbermann had prepared two endings for the show; one with two readings from James Thurber, and another with a Thurber reading and his farewell to viewers. “As far as anybody knew,” says Olbermann. “I was doing the two Thurber stories.” Meanwhile, huddled off camera at Countdown’s Studio 1A Up, above the Today show’s Studio 1A, were Olbermann’s representatives (two ICM agents and Michael Price, Olbermann’s manager) and MSNBC president Phil Griffin and an NBC lawyer. At the 8:30 p.m. break, the parties agreed to release Olbermann out of his contract and he told his staff for the first time. Later, he and his team went out to eat at New York City’s Gramercy Tavern.
*He has not spoken to longtime mentee Rachel Maddow since leaving. “There were lots of people who were forced to choose sides. And particularly in Rachel’s case, I didn’t want to add to the pressure on her already. The last thing I need to do is be calling her up and saying, ‘How’s that Michael Steele working out for you?’ [He signed to NBC as a political analyst on May 23.] Which is exactly what I would do if I were in the office.”
ON BEING RECRUITED FOR CBS EVENING NEWS
In 2005, before CBS News wooed Katie Couric to the network, CBS Corp. president and CEO Leslie Moonves and former CBS News president Andrew Heyward spent two hours at Olbermann’s Central Park South apartment exploring the possibility of his joining the news division as CBS Evening News anchor, according to Olbermann. Moonves, says Olbermann, “had that lust-for-talent look in his eyes. I saw it.”
When asked about the meeting recently, Moonves visibly bristles: “It was an hour, and it wasn’t for the main [anchor] job.”
ON BEING CRITICIZED IN THE NEW ESPN TELL-ALL
*Olbermann is featured prominently in James Andrew Miller and Tom Shales‘ new ESPN tell-all Those Guys Have All the Fun. Olbermann says he is in the process of working his way through the book — reading “the parts about me first to see if there were any forest fires. There were no forest fires. There are some funny things in it,” he says, adding, “Honestly, hearing which executive thinks he was most responsible for the success of the place is probably not going to interest people who are picking up the book to find out how big of a jackass I am. Was I not a big enough jackass? Do I need to go back and jackass some more?” REVIEW: Those Guys Have All the Fun
For more candid revelations from Keith Olbermann, read the full THR cover story here.
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