MSNBC Chief: With Olbermann Out, ‘Nothing Changes’

Phil Griffin says network will thrive without host he once considered its “tent pole”

MSNBC's President Phil Griffin's plans for a post-Keith Olbermann MSNBC can be summarized in two words: "Nothing changes."

In an interview with TheWrap on Monday, Griffin says the network is well prepared to keep trying to catch No. 1 Fox News without its top ratings draw, who abruptly announced his departure Friday. He declined to talk specifics about Olbermann.

Also Read: Did Olbermann Bolt MSNBC to Create Media Empire?

"Change has happened, and we have a great bench, we’re deep, and we know who we are," Griffin said. "Nothing changes. Our vision’s the same, our goals are the same. Fox is in front of us, that’s where we’re heading."

Olbermann tweeted Monday to look out for another tweet at 8 p.m. Monday — which just happens to be when Lawrence O'Donnell will take over his time slot. He didn't say whether he would address his exit.

Though Griffin (right) has described Olbermann as the tent pole the network once built itself around, he says the tent is built. He predicts it will be ably supported by the primetime team of Rachel Maddow and Ed Schultz, as well as O'Donnell, the network stalwart who has filled in for Olbermann before and held most of his ratings.

O'Donnell, who debuted with his own show in the 10 p.m. slot behind Maddow, will leap to Olbermann's 8 p.m. slot Monday to begin taking on Fox News' Bill O'Reilly, who is No. 1 in cable news. Shultz will move from 6 p.m. to O'Donnell's old time slot, and Maddow will stay put at 9 p.m..

Also Read: Olbermann Promises 'First Tweet' At the Moment O'Donnell Takes Over His Old Time Slot

Though nowhere near as volatile as Olbermann, O'Donnell, 59, has quietly earned respect as the host of "The Last Word." The Emmy-winning "West Wing" producer and writer, and occasional actor on "Big Love," has seemed more interested than Olbermann in welcoming people with opposing views on his show.

He also appreciates specific, policy-oriented debates more than pyrotechnics, though his unusually heated debate (below) with Republican Arizona Rep. Trent Franks — about whether a smaller capacity ammo clip might have saved lives in the Tucson mass shooting — became a liberal mini-meme last week.

Griffin said he repeatedly approached O'Donnell to host his own show before O'Donnell finally agreed, and noted that he has been with the network from the very beginning.

“He’s been with MSNBC since 1996. He was actually the first guest on MSNBC back when we went on the air July 15, 1996 at 9:20 a.m.," Griffin said. "So we’ve got a long history."

Griffin suspended Olbermann in November over the "Countdown" host's campaign contributions to Democratic candidates, but was generally seen as in Olbermann's corner. The host is credited with helping MSNBC rise to the No. 2 cable news network by staking out a liberal bent to counter the conservative leanings of many Fox News hosts.

Before the advance warning of a Monday night tweet, Olbermann had been uncharacteristically silent since Friday, likely under the conditions of his exit agreement.

His usually active Twitter feed was stripped of references to MSNBC. The message "WATCH THIS SPACE," was replaced with, "You might very well think so; I could not possibly comment." It's a line used on the British show "House of Cards" to acknowledge something without overtly acknolwedging it, according to The Huffington Post.

The network and Comcast flatly reject the idea that NBC's new corporate owner (the deal is expected to close Friday) had any role in Olbermann's exit. An MSNBC rep flatly dismissed a suggestion by former Olbermann fill-in David Shuster over the weekend that a post-merger management shakeup would leave Olbermann exposed to more control from NBC News.

Griffin — an avid runner who didn't let temperatures in the teens Sunday stop him from putting in his miles — isn't one to let inconveniences like the loss of his biggest star get him down. He said his ratings target for O'Donnell is simple — and the same one he had for Olbermann.

“O’Reilly," he says. "That’s our goal.”