Keith Olbermann hobbles into an expensive seafood restaurant in Manhattan on a recent afternoon with the assistance of a long, retractable cane. Maneuvering past startled diners, the former Countdown host mutters over his shoulder, "The joke is, it's apparently not as easy to leave NBC as it looks."
Wincing, Olbermann lowers himself into a round booth. He explains that he injured one of his feet exercising: a stress fracture, brought on by his use of special five-toed running shoes. Olbermann being Olbermann, he'd decided to use his lameness as a teachable moment—not for himself, of course, but for rude New Yorkers. He had taken to planting himself in front of subway passengers who fail to vacate seats meant for the disabled and just glowering. Recounting the tale, Olbermann's delight grows, as if he can't believe the luck of having been given permission to yell at people in public and not seem insane.
That said, by any number of conventional indicators, the past six months have not been stellar ones for Olbermann, whose cane might well have been a prop assigned by a scriptwriter fond of heavy-handed symbolism. In January, the anchor abruptly parted ways with MSNBC, the cable network he spent eight years rebranding as a progressive alternative to Fox News. The previous November, he'd been suspended for donating money to three Democratic candidates for Congress. Despite an official statement describing a joint parting of the ways, no one ever really buys a breakup's depiction as "mutual," and many speculated that Olbermann had been fired.
Whatever happened—both sides signed a nondisclosure agreement as part of the severance—the fact that a major corporation allowed such a marquee name to walk away from a contract only fed long-standing rumors of Olbermann's difficulty as both an employee and boss. These rumors gained further credence with the recent release of an oral history of ESPN, another network Olbermann played a crucial role in giving a unique identity, through his hosting of SportsCenter. In the book, many of Olbermann's former colleagues describe him as brilliant but insufferable. Admits one anchor, "We felt not so much relief when Keith left as unrestrained fucking joy."
Olbermann has had to keep his foot elevated for several hours every day, and he's used part of the time to read the ESPN book. His review? "I wish them well with it," he says, "but it's a bad sign when someone who worked at the network falls asleep while reading the part about himself."
At the moment, he's mostly consumed with his return to cable television on June 20th, on Al Gore's Current TV. Once again, a struggling network is pinning its hopes at reinvention on Olbermann. Will the third time be yet another charm? If the title of Olbermann's new show, Countdown With Keith Olbermann, is any indication, it won't be a radical departure from his old show. So far, he's announced contributors ranging from the expected (Michael Moore, Rolling Stone's Matt Taibbi) to the surprising (comedian Richard Lewis, PBS documentarian Ken Burns). Still, Olbermann will have his work cut out for him at Current. The channel averages only 23,000 viewers in prime time, and he'll be programmed alongside reality shows like What Did I Do Last Night? ("A party girl is horrified by footage of her drunken antics from the night before... from table-dancing to flashing her breasts.")
Long-term, though, Olbermann has big plans for the place. His mandate is nothing less than to build an entire network around his show, one populated with righteous liberal voices like his own and perhaps, once contracts expire, former colleagues like Rachel Maddow—a network, in fact, that sounds remarkably like MSNBC. "They thought I was going to go away for so long that nobody would bring me back," Olbermann says, sounding surprised by the stupidity of his enemies.
Let's start with the new show. Are you going to be able to do things you've always been dying to do but couldn't?
I interviewed everybody who's going to work for the show. I selected the interns. I'm not saying I interviewed 350 people, but I got the finalists for every position. Everybody on this staff is equally invested in the risks involved. I don't know that there's going to be anything hugely different that's visible to the viewer. It's not going to be like, "I'm going to do the last half of the show topless." But the freedom from the wear and tear of having to get past a bunch of people mumbling, "Oh, I don't know..." It's the key to the operation, it really is.
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