It was Keith Olbermann's decision to leave his high-profile perch at MSNBC, TheWrap has learned. The outspoken host abruptly announced his departure on Friday evening, sending shockwaves through the cable news world.
But the sudden departure has a history, and the timing does not rule out a preemptive MSNBC move. The gadfly commentator first told the network last April that he wanted to leave and began negotiating his exit then, according to an individual with knowledge of the situation.
Olbermann abandoned the notion of leaving at that time but revived his plans in recent weeks with new representation from the talent agency ICM.
With two years left on his $7 million-a-year contract, Olbermann was seeking a full exit package but he really has his eye on creating his own media empire in the style of Huffington Post, according to the individual. That way, Olbermann would control his own brand and, in his view, potentially earn far more as an owner.
On Friday, Olbermann informed viewers that he had been told that "this was going to be the last edition" of “Countdown,” which suggested that the departure was not voluntary. The host offered no more information.
Neither did MSNBC.
"MSNBC and Keith Olbermann have ended their contract," the network said in a statement released minutes after Olbermann, who ended with his signature flourish of thrown papers, was off the air. "The last broadcast of "Countdown with Keith Olbermann" will be this evening," the statement continued. "MSNBC thanks Keith for his integral role in MSNBC's success and we wish him well in his future endeavors."
The departure of Olbermann, who recently left his long time talent agent Jean Sage to work with a troika at ICM, came so abruptly that MSNBC was still running promos for him and his show an hour after he signed off for the last time.
Immediately after the host said his goodbyes, speculation started that his departure had something to do with the recently approved merger between NBC Universal and Comcast.
"Of course that is an easy angle to take considering the timing," an individual close to the company told TheWrap, "but it is not true."
The Comcast merger is set to occur next Friday, January 28.
"Comcast has not closed the transaction for NBC Universal and has no operational control at any of its properties including MSNBC," Comcast said in a statement late Friday night. "We pledged from the day the deal was announced that we would not interfere with NBC Universal's news operations. We have not and we will not."
The tempestuous Olbermman did however, according to the New York Times, “[come] to an agreement with NBC’s corporate management late this week to settle his contract and step down.”
Though the announcement was quick, there was some warning. Despite the presence of Rachel Maddow and other anchors and on-air personalities, Olbermann was nowhere to be seen Thursday at a lunch NBC News hosted in New York City for advertisers.
In announcing his departure Friday, Olbermann, referring sometimes to the film “Network,” said, "there were many occasions, particularly in the past two and a half years … that were too much for me.”
The host then added, without breaking a stride, “but your support and loyalty and if I may use the word insistence ultimately required that I keep going. My gratitude to you is boundless.”
"This may be the only television program wherein the host was much more in awe of the audience than vice versa. You will always be in my heart for that.”
Appearing on HBO’s “Real Time With Bill Maher" later Friday, Maddow, who Olbermann praised in his sign-off, said she thought her former fellow host was “very gracious and nice” but that she knew “very little" about why he left.
Olbermann, who is just six days short of his 52nd birthday, has hosted “Countdown” on MSNBC since 2003. He is a former sports reporter for CNN, ESPN and, later, Fox Sports Net. Olbermann joined MSNBC in 1997 but only stayed one year. In March of 2003, the host returned to MSNBC.
Very quickly, Olbermann established himself as a critic of George W. Bush’s administration, conservatives and FoxNews. He often feuded publicly with Fox commentator Bill O'Reilly.
The war of words worked for Olbermann and MSNBC, as ratings put the network in second place in the cable news world, behind FoxNews.
In 2007, MSNBC renewed Olbermann's contract for four years. A year later the host signed another contract, reportedly worth nearly $30 million, further extending his time at the network. “Countdown,” said NBC News President Steve Capus in 2007, “is obviously an incredibly important franchise for us. It is something that has really put MSNBC back on the map."
Maps may be maps but with the sudden exit of their highest rated host, the geography at MSNBC seems to have distinctly changed.
Not that MSNBC weren't quick to fill any holes in their schedule left by Olbermann's sudden departure.
"Starting Monday, January 24,” Phil Griffin, President of MSNBC said within an hour of the end of Olbermann’s show, “ “The Last Word with Lawrence O’Donnell” will move to 8 p.m. ET/PT and “The Ed Show,” hosted by Ed Schultz, will move to 10 p.m. ET/PT on MSNBC.” Griffin added that “The Rachel Maddow Show” will continue to air live in its 9 p.m. ET/PT time slot.
This isn't the first time there has been serious friction between Olbermann and MSNBC in recent months.
The always opinionated cable host was suspended late last year when it was revealed that he had made contributions to political candidates, including Rep. Gabrielle Giffords who was wounded in a shooting in Tucson on Jan. 8.
On Nov. 9, Olbermann returned to the air after a short suspension apologizing to viewers but not the network. He also made sure to head off rumors that the revelations were a publicity stunt to pump up the ratings. "This was not a publicity stunt," Olbermann said as he professed ignorance of NBC policy on such contributions. "If I had known this would happen, I would have done this years ago."
Joshua L. Weinstein contributed to this article