EXCLUSIVE DETAILS… UPDATE 11:15 AM: I’ve just learned that Walt Disney Company chief Bob Iger and ESPN executive chairman George Bodenheimer both were integrally involved in the negotiations to bring Keith Olbermann back to the sports channel. “George Bodenheimer and Bob Iger blessed it,” an insider tells me. Meanwhile, during a phone call with media today, the former MSNBC and Current TV liberal host said he’ll just be doing “a sports show” and pledged “no political segments, no cultural segments, are planned”. Olbermann also denied any “content clause” exists in his two-year ESPN2 contract. “No need for one. They’re not restraining me. They don’t have to.” Olbermann’s demeanor was obsequious to ESPN president John Skipper during the media call, and the infamously arrogant host went so far as to say, “I appreciate the fresh start.” Of course, the over-under is it’s just a matter of time before Olbermann will self-destruct again. After all, this is the same guy who once wrote in a public mea culpa: “I couldn’t handle the pressure of working in daily long-form television, and what was worse, I didn’t know I couldn’t handle it.”
Despite that admission, Olbermann will host an hour-long weekday late-night sports program on ESPN2 starting August 26th. Titled Olbermann, it will air at 11 PM ET from ABC’s Times Square studios unless live events push the show’s start. (Who doesn’t expect fireworks from Keith over that down the road.) The program will focus on the day’s relevant sports topics through a mix of perspective and commentary, interviews, contributors, panel discussions and highlights, according to the network. That Olbermann and the network were having “serious discussions” was reported this week.
Olbermann spent the first 20 years of his TV career in sports journalism: as a sports correspondent for CNN and for local TV and radio stations in the 1980s, co-host of ESPN’s SportsCenter from 1992 to 1997, and as a producer and anchor for Fox Sports Net and a host of Major League Baseball on Fox from 1998 to 2001. Olbermann’s abrupt departure from ESPN began what became decades of headlines for him in cable TV where he either left or was fired amid headlines, accusations, and even lawsuits. His return to ESPN now is stunning given the nastiness that ensued for years. Early in 1997, he was suspended for two weeks after he dissed ESPN during an unauthorized appearance on The Daily Show (at one point referring to ESPN’s Bristol, Connecticut headquarters as a “godforsaken place). Later that year, Olbermann exited and began a puerile feud with network management and claimed he had “too much backbone” to work there. For its part, ESPN omitted Olbermann from its 25th anniversary SportsCenter “Reunion Week”. Ten years after his departure, Olbermann was still fuming about ESPN and told David Letterman in 2007: “If you burn a bridge, you can possibly build a new bridge. But if there’s no river any more, that’s a lot of trouble.”
Olbermann returns to ESPN with his TV career hanging by a thread. Most recently, he was the chief news officer of the Current TV network and until March 2012 the host of the Current TV weeknight political commentary program Countdown With Keith Olbermann, a program he hosted with the same title and similar format on MSNBC from March 2003 to January 2011 until he crashed and burned at both political channels.
Judging his contriteness during today’s media call, Olbermann appears to know that getting back his sports career is a gift. “Keith is a one-of-a-kind personality and these shows will be appointment viewing for that very reason,” ESPN president John Skipper said in announcing the deal. “Keith brings a blend of editorial sophistication and unpredictability — you can never be sure what you’ll get. Olbermann on ESPN2 gives viewers the quality late-night complement to ESPN’s SportsCenter in the same way we’ve developed distinct show options across our networks the rest of the day.”
Said Olbermann: “Apart from the opportunity to try to create a nightly hour of sports television that no fan can afford to miss, I’m overwhelmed by the chance to begin anew with ESPN. I’ve been gone for 16 years and not one day in that time has passed without someone connecting me to the network. Our histories are indelibly intertwined and frankly I have long wished that I had the chance to make sure the totality of that story would be a completely positive one. I’m grateful to friends and bosses – old and new – who have permitted that opportunity to come to pass. I’m not going to waste it.”