Current TV, the progressive cable-TV channel founded in San Francisco by Al Gore, on March 30 fired its headliner, Keith Olbermann, citing his alleged temper tantrums and repeated failures to report for work.
Last week, Olbermann sued and demanded between $50 million and $70 million. Current TV executives released a statement in response: “We hope Mr. Olbermann understands that when it comes to the legal process, he is actually required to show up.”
That zinger is the only clever thing Current TV has done since it made the decision to contact Olbermann’s agent.
When Gore and his business partner Joel Hyatt created Current TV in 2005, they were on to something: A shoestring TV and online media network, with an aggressively progressive bent and a focus on cheap, user-generated content. It was launched the same year as YouTube. It had the potential to be weird, interesting and unpredictable.
But then it hired Olbermann, followed by the most predictable calamity imaginable.
Olbermann is passionate, articulate and intense. But he also has a track record.
- ESPN: While anchoring the network’s “SportsCenter” program, Olbermann showed up on “The Daily Show” and mocked Bristol, Conn. — the headquarters of ESPN — as a “godforsaken place.” Olbermann repeatedly browbeat his ESPN2 co-anchor Suzy Kolber to the point where she was often reduced to tears; Olbermann later apologized to Kolber on Salon’s website: “I pumped up some small-scale complaints into a scenario in which she was at fault for everything ESPN2 hadn’t become.”
ESPN spokesman Mike Soltys later declared, “He didn’t burn bridges. He napalmed them.”
- MSNBC: Olbermann grew so disgusted by the Monica Lewinsky coverage that he began dragging his feet and had to be forced to go on the air, despite the fact that he was the anchor of a nightly program dedicated to the scandal. Olbermann was paid a lot of money to cover the most important domestic story of the late 1990s, and he spent so much time sulking that he and MSNBC ultimately parted ways.
- Fox Sports: After feuding with his superiors, Olbermann reported on air that his boss, Rupert Murdoch, was about to sell the Los Angeles Dodgers. The story was certainly newsworthy, but Olbermann’s report had the tinge of payback to it, and he was immediately fired.
- MSNBC (again): Last year, after feuding with his superiors, Olbermann surprised MSNBC executives by resigning on the air during the last 10 minutes of “Countdown.”
Current TV’s executives knew everything about Olbermann. But they decided his on-air charisma would compensate for his temper.
Twelve months, a five-year $50 million contract and one lawsuit later, here is the substance of Olbermann’s complaints: He was required to promote other Current TV anchors; he had to help promote the network during marketing events; the production quality was shoddy; the limo drivers who picked him up would sometimes talk to him.
Gore and his colleagues had a bright idea seven years ago. Then they blew a wad of cash on a prima donna, and all they got was a bill from their lawyers. And their replacement for Olbermann is Eliot Spitzer.
They should’ve stuck to their vision and hired the keyboard-playing cat that has become an Internet star or used other user-generated content instead of an overpaid and overrated commentator.