If Keith Olbermann were not a very real, very angry American news anchor, commentator, and sportscaster, then he might have been a character dreamed up by brilliant screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky in the movie "Network" (1976), his searing satire of television news. In that movie, Peter Finch's anchorman Howard Beale goes insane, chucks his professional impartiality, and starts ranting and raving on the air against the depressing state of the world. As the host of the nightly newscast "Countdown with Keith Olbermann" (MSNBC, 2003-11), Olbermann's critics - and even some of his fans - would argue that Olbermann essentially did the same thing, night after night. A man who admittedly harbored many personal demons through the years, eventually transformed a show that began as a straight newscast into a pulpit for its star to attack the policies of the Bush Administration and the right-wing diatribes of his heated on-air rival, Bill O'Reilly. In the process, Olbermann became a lightning rod for controversy and perhaps the loudest liberal voice on America's airwaves, until his sudden departure from MSNBC in early 2011 left uncertain the future of both the vocal provocateur and his former network.
Keith Olbermann was born in New York City on Jan. 27, 1959. His father was a successful architect and moved the family to affluent Westchester County north of the city when Olbermann was still a child. He was an obsessive baseball fan and started collecting baseball cards as soon as his parents gave him an allowance. It was not merely a hobby. Olbermann became a nationally recognized expert on collecting and trading cards while still in his teens, publishing articles in several major publications. While attending the prestigious Hackley School in Tarrytown, NY, Olbermann decided to make sports his career, resolving to become the play-by-play announcer for his beloved New York Yankees or, failing that, a TV sportscaster. In retrospect, this may not have been such a far-fetched idea. An older classmate of Olbermann's at Hackley, Chris Berman, grew up to be a founding member of the 24-hour sports network ESPN and its first star broadcaster. Olbermann entered Cornell University at the age of 16 and majored in Communications. He worked at the college radio station, and upon graduation, wasted no time pursuing his dream of getting on the air. He joined a budding CNN in 1981, but moved on, heading to Los Angeles to become a sports anchor in the mid-1980s. Working at KTLA, then KCBS, he won 11 Golden Mike Awards for Outstanding Broadcast Work in Southern California, and became one of the highest paid sports anchors in the country. In 1992, he moved on to ESPN, joining Berman at the burgeoning sports network.
Olbermann was teamed with Dan Patrick to host the nightly "SportsCenter" (ESPN, 1979- ), a round up of the day in sports and the centerpiece of the network's programming. Olbermann and Patrick proved to be an extremely popular team; they both possessed a dry wit, an encyclopedic knowledge of sports, and a penchant for coining a catchphrase. Olbermann's home run call of "It's deep and I don't think it's playable" became as familiar to baseball fans as the singing of "Take Me Out to the Ball Game." He and Patrick became the de facto face and voice of ESPN, well coiffed and ironic. The duo stayed together until 1997, with Olbermann winning a Cable ACE award for Best Sportscaster. The duo also co-wrote a book, The Big Show: Inside ESPN's SportsCenter in 1997, and were cited by writer Aaron Sorkin as the models for the sportscasters on his short-lived TV dramedy, "Sports Night" (ABC, 1998-2000). But despite his success and popularity with viewers, Olbermann left ESPN in 1997 under difficult circumstances. As his ratings grew, so too did his ego. He clashed with co-workers and network management. In 2004, Olbermann published an article in the online magazine Salon.com, admitting that his problems at ESPN and previous employers stemmed from his own insecurities and impulse control. ESPN hired him back on a part-time basis to join Patrick on his popular radio show, but banned him from the network's offices. Management also excluded Olbermann from the guest lineup of its 25th Anniversary "SportsCenter" Reunion Week. It was not the first time Olbermann's brash personality had angered the powers that be, and it would not be the last.
After ESPN, Olbermann bounced between MSNBC and Fox Sports Net in various show formats, but again he battled management over issues of content and control. At "The Big Show" (MSNBC, 1997) Olbermann grew frustrated that he spent most of his time covering the Monica Lewinsky scandal. He bolted after just one season to anchor and executive produce "The Keith Olbermann Evening News" (FSN, 1998), which, despite its grand-sounding name, was just a "SportsCenter" clone. Without Patrick sitting across the desk from Olbermann, the show lacked chemistry and struggled to find an audience. Olbermann also chafed at working at News Corp.-owned Fox, whose conservative chairman Rupert Murdoch stood at the opposite end of the political spectrum from himself.
Olbermann floated through a succession of jobs after leaving FSN. His reputation for bringing along trouble with his talent made it hard for him to land anywhere for too long. He enjoyed getting back to baseball broadcasting, working as a pre-game host for the "1999 MLB All-Star Game" (Fox, 1999). He put his acerbic wit to good use doing guest spots on the TV sitcom "Arli$$" (HBO, 1996-2002) and the game show "Hollywood Squares" (syndicated, 1998-2004). He also found steady work doing a news show on ABC radio and seemed happy with keeping a low profile, but then the events of September 11th jolted him out of his complacency, as it did for many. A deeply shaken Olbermann lost close friends in the terrorist attacks and resolved to buckle down and commit himself to hard-hitting journalism. Aghast at what he considered the right-wing jingoism of the Fox News Channel and the complacency of CNN, he pushed MSNBC to give him another crack at a daily show. The network agreed and launched "Countdown with Keith Olbermann" (MSNBC, 2003-2011) - the same year America went to "war against terror."
"Countdown" began as a prelude to the invasion of Iraq; a newscast with a specific focus, much as "Nightline" (ABC, 1980- ) emerged during the Iran hostage crisis. But Olbermann soon took control of the show and refashioned the format to include a "countdown" of any stories he felt newsworthy. In particular, Olbermann began fearlessly attacking the Bush administration and its defenders - none more so than Bill O'Reilly, the star of the cable ratings juggernaut "The O'Reilly Factor" (Fox News Channel, 1996- ). Olbermann and O'Reilly engaged in a very public feud, using their airtime to criticize and mock each other. Olbermann frequently named O'Reilly the winner in a regular segment called "The Worst Person in the World," while O'Reilly tried to use his sizable influence to get Olbermann replaced by Phil Donahue, his predecessor on MSNBC. O'Reilly's attacks on Olbermann became less frequent when he realized they were actually helping his rival's ratings, but Olbermann persisted in keeping up the barrage. "Countdown" still lagged far behind "The O'Reilly Factor," but Olbermann narrowed the ratings gap by 2006-07, as he tapped into a previously underserved audience of Americans who had grown increasingly critical of the Bush Administration, championed on the airwaves by the likes of O'Reilly and Rush Limbaugh for nearly a decade.
As Olbermann's ratings and influence increased so too did his tendency to court controversy - both from within and outside his network home. Early in 2008 he was roundly criticized by supporters of New York Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton after openly suggesting she drop out of the Democratic Primary in order to clear the way for a Barack Obama nomination. Then, during the presidential election coverage in September of that year, Olbermann and Chris Matthews were replaced as commentators by MSNBC after making overtly partisan statements during their segments. Things came to a head two months later when Olbermann was suspended for two days for making unapproved contributions to several Democratic candidates. Surprisingly, he emerged shortly thereafter with a new four-year, multi-million dollar contract, and it appeared once again as if the waters surrounding the broadcaster had calmed, at least temporarily. The peace would not last long. On Jan. 21, 2011, Olbermann stunned audiences when he abruptly announced on air that he was leaving "Countdown" and MSNBC, effective immediately. In the days that followed, little was said by either side, with his departure being characterized as a "negotiated separation," which apparently included an agreement that Olbermann would not appear on a competing network for nearly a year in order to collect a reputedly hefty severance payment. In the meantime, his fiercely loyal fan base could only wait and see where their mercurial moderator would land next. They did not have to wait long. Two weeks after leaving MSNBC, the fiery commentator announced he was moving to Current TV, the network founded by former vice-president, Al Gore. Unfortunately, the move to Current TV, like the network itself, proved to be short-lived. After debuting the slightly revamped show on June 20, 2011, Olbermann clashed with his new bosses, including Gore, almost immediately. When the power at Current TV's New York studio went out shortly before a live broadcast, Olbermann began hosting the show in an almost completely darkened studio as a visual comment on what he saw as Current TV's inferior live TV infrastructure. The network announced on March 30, 2012 that it was canceling the remainder of Olbermann's contract. Olbermann sued Current TV for breach of contract, a suit that was settled for an undisclosed amount in 2013, shortly before Current TV shuttered its doors for good. In July 2013, it was announced that Olbermann would return to ESPN for the first time since his acrimonious 1997 departure. The nightly news and highlights show "Olbermann" (ESPN2 2013-15) found the broadcaster returning to the breezier style of his "SportsCenter" days, with a more serious edge showing on topics like the NFL's settlement of a lawsuit about player concussions.
Joined the CNN Network in the early stages of development
Joined ESPN's "SportsCenter," co-hosting with Dan Patrick
Briefly worked at ESPN2 on "SportsNight"
Hosted MSNBC primetime series "The Big Show with Keith Olbermann"; show titled changed to "White House in Crisis" when the Monica Lewinsky scandal broke in 1998
Co-wrote (with Dan Patrick) the book <i>The Big Show: Inside ESPN's SportsCenter</i>
Appeared as himself on an episode of "Arli$$" (HBO)
Wrote a weekly column for Salon.com
Returned to MSNBC to host "Countdown with Keith Olbermann"
Appeared as himself on an episode of "The Simpsons" (Fox)
Co-anchored MSNBC's coverage of the 2008 U.S. presidential election with Chris Matthews
Announced his departure from MSNBC the same day his final episode of "Countdown with Keith Olbermann" aired; MSNBC issued a statement that it had ended its contract with Olbermann, with no further explanation
Relaunched "Countdown with Keith Olbermann" on Al Gore's Current TV; fired by Gore from network in 2012