Saturday, January 22, 2011

Olbermann's Firing by Comcast

I have talked to executives at Comcast and friends of the Roberts family. While they would not go on the record, they did make these points. Comcast was definitely part of the equation in the firing of MSNBC anchor Keith Olbermann, but it was more complicated than that.

Everyone was tired of Olbermann's tantrums. Jeff Zucker was gone so Olbermann did not have a rabbi or booster in the room.

Phil Griffin, the head of MSNBC, was worried about keeping his own job after the takeover. When Olbermann acted up for the hundredth time, Griffin did not hesitate in firing Olbermann. Griffin thought that his firing Olbermann would help him keep his job. He hoped that they would be grateful that he eliminated a problem for Comcast.

Griffin definitely boosted his chances of keeping his job by the efficient way he handled Olbermann's termination. While the Comcast executives did not care for Olbermann, they hated even more the possibility of a repeat of the Conan saga. During the Late Night wars, they were vexed but powerless to do anything. They just shook their head and said, "What a mess."

By the firing, Comcast wanted to send a message that no prima donnas would not be tolerated at NBC and MSNBC. In some ways, this was a repeat of the sacking of Pat Croce as head of the 76ers during a winning streak.

Brian Roberts overlooked Olbermann's political donations that broke NBC rules, but he could not forgive the theatrics around the event. He was livid at Olbermann's attempt to blackmail him by threatening to appear on rival networks' shows such as "Good Morning America" to discuss the donations.

It might have helped to soothe things over if Olbermann had made a courtesy trip to Philadelphia like David Gregory and many others did to kiss the pope's ie Brian Roberts ring, but he could not be bothered.

Olbermann was riled up because Comcast had made it clear that MSNBC would no longer lean as liberal in the future. He would no longer be allowed to anchor election night coverage. Comcast insists that this was a business decision not a political one. My source said, "There are just not as many as left wing listeners as right wing."

Although I think changing the political branding of MSNBC is misguided, I do not think the decision is political based. Comcast executives say that the decision is more headline based. Comcast likes to fly under the radar. They did not like the complaints about MSNBC bias.

Unlike Roger Ailes, the head of Fox News, Burke and Roberts are not former political operatives so they do not relish the political debate. While Steve Burke is an avid Republican supporter and fundraiser, he is not dogmatic. The traditionally conservative Roberts family tend to be pragmatic and are definitely liberals on social issues. They have donated to both Democrats and Republicans.They hired David Cohen, Democratic Mayor Rendell's chief of staff, as an executive vice president.

Olbermann, like many other broadcasters, was told to tone down the rhetoric. He resisted and resented their interference. Even though Olbermann does not advocate violence in any way, Comcast had even less interest in bombastic speech of any kind after the Gifford's assassination. The decision to let Olbermann go was already in the works but the tragedy just reinforced that it was the right one.

Personal prejudices entered the picture. Ralph Roberts, the founder of Comcast and the current CEO's father, hated "The Worst Person in the world" segment as many people did.

Olbermann should be back on the air in September. He probably will not be able to tell us what really happened because he signed a confidentiality agreement.

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