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MSNBC’s Dave Shuster: Angling for a Firing?

Purposely blowing up your contract before its conclusion is an industry tradition — just ask Katherine Heigl

Does MSNBC’s David Shuster have the biggest self-destructive streak on cable news or its biggest set of cojones?

Good Friday became Interesting Friday for the net’s 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. anchor and his employer. That morning, the New York Observer reported that Shuster had recently hosted a series pilot for CNN.

While apparently under contract to MSNBC until December.

And allegedly without the latter’s knowledge.

That day, a blindsided and embarrassed MSNBC management yanked him off the air, announcing that his return date would be the dreaded “TBD.”

The media have been oohing and aahing since MSNBC’s flack declared the anchor “would be punished appropriately” in a meeting scheduled to take place imminently. Conventional wisdom is that the punishment will be banishment: gone from the air for good, paid off to some degree under his current contract’s remaining terms and not offered a new deal.

All of which might be exactly what Shuster was hoping for.

Purposely blowing up your contract ahead of its conclusion is an industry tradition. Just ask Katherine Heigl.

As my lawyer told me when I thought my only way out of the Definitive Job from Hell was to find a convent accepting Jews, “Contracts are written to be broken.” Fortunately, I didn’t have to take the vows and he enabled me to escape.

But when the stakes involve recognizable talent, things become much more interesting.

My favorite contract dynamite story involves a friend stuck in a dead-end co-anchor job who knew he had little chance of being renewed when his contract expired sometime down the road. But when he got approached for a better, non-competitive position, his management not only refused to budge, they threatened to sue. So when a second job feeler came his way about six months later, he took matters into his own hands.

Or, in his case, his own face.

One of this guy’s worst daily tasks was to make spontaneous on-air happy talk with a giddy weatherman known for unintelligible off-the-cuff comments. My pal would have to muster a smile and say something – anything – coherent to get the show back on track.

One evening, he planned not to. Instead, with brilliant timing, he simply turned his head and shot Mr. Weather the most disdainful look imaginable.

It was incredibly good live TV.

It also cost him his job soon after the credits ran; the manager yanked him off the air immediately. Within a few days, his agent reached a cash settlement with the former employer and got a signed deal with the new one.

Shuster might be a grating on-air talent but he clearly isn’t a stupid one. With a stunt like this, it sure smells like he’s confident about the likelihood of a CNN hosting gig that he’d like to get started sooner rather than later. And the trade-off scenario that’s most likely – a lesser payout for an early release – is nothing new to the lawyers.

Am I correct? Maybe. Am I wrong? Maybe too. That’s because there’s a host of other circumstances that can collide with this premise, ultimately changing how it rolls out and how – or if – it concludes.

Such as: does Shuster’s agent have another talent in play at MSNBC that will be leveraged? Has MSNBC been planning to cut Shuster loose all along and, with his departure, does it save laying off someone more valuable? Or does MSNBC want to play hardball, so to speak, and sue Shuster and possibly even CNN for alleged contract violations so they save money and send other staff a message?

And finally, there’s one more potential wrinkle. With CNN’s ratings in the toilet, its strategy under fire from all directions and rumors of management changes percolating, the programming executive who developed, authorized and is championing this series pilot and Shuster too could be terminated himself soon. The survival of a pilot after its executive savior is gone is slimmer than a #1 time period ratings win for "The Marriage Ref."

It’s enough to make a wacky weatherman cry.

Flackback will explore the art and artifice of entertainment PR.  The author has 25 years' corporate experience and has finessed everything from a celebrity's drunken surprise marriage to his best friend's 16-year-old daughter to a 20-minute advance warning that her company's president was being fired. And she sees little difference between these scenarios.  She's chosen candor over a byline.