MSNBC Drops Olbermann

Just days after Comcast was given the green light to take a majority stake in NBC Universal, MSNBC and Countdown host Keith Olbermann are parting ways.

The news network’s biggest draw, Olbermann on Friday night abruptly announced that his time at MSNBC had come to an end. While he offered no insight into why he was leaving his post, Olbermann thanked viewers for supporting his “anti-establishment” show.

“There were many occasions, particularly in the last two-and-a-half years, where all that surrounded the show was just too much for me,” Olbermann told viewers before signing off. “But your support and loyalty…required that I keep going.”

In a statement issued by MSNBC, network president Phil Griffin confirmed that tonight’s program would be Olbermann’s last, before going on to wish the commentator well in his future endeavors.

Beginning Monday, the 10 p.m. show The Last Word with Lawrence O’Donnell will move into Olbermann’s 8 p.m. time slot. Ed Schultz’ program will jump to 10 p.m., and The Rachel Maddow Show will remain in its regular 9 p.m. slot.

Olbermann still had nearly two years remaining on his contract, as both sides had come to terms on a four-year, $30 million extension in November 2008. Per terms of his buy-out, Olbermann is prohibited from accepting a full-time post at a rival network for the near term.

Sources insisted the split had nothing to do with the FCC’s approval of the Comcast-NBCU deal. That said, Comcast chairman and CEO Brian Roberts may have subtly tipped his hand on the controversial Olbermann back in May 2010. When former News Corp president and COO Peter Chernin asked Roberts what course of action he might take were Olbermann to start taking potshots at Republican pols, the Comcast chief replied that he would take pains to ensure that NBC News would “keep [its coverage] down the middle, whatever that means.”

In the same forum, which took place at the 2010 Cable Show in Los Angeles, Roberts gushed over NBC News, calling it “the most awesome asset” in the Peacock’s portfolio, adding that the news operations would “help define Comcast.”

The split comes just two months after MSNBC briefly suspended Olbermann for donating money to three Democrats involved in key mid-term election races. Coincidentally, one of the pols to whom Olbermann gave material support was Rep. Gabrielle Giffords of Arizona, who on Jan. 8 was seriously wounded in an assasiination attempt in Tucson.

While Olbermann certainly enjoyed antagonising his adversaries, using his nightly program as a catapult from which to fire upon rivals like Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly and Glenn Beck, radio host Rush Limbaugh and pretty much every G.O.P. pol of note, he was also the biggest draw for MSNBC and helped position the channel as the No. 2 news net behind FNC. In other words, despite his reputation as a scourge of Republicans and network brass alike, Olbermann was BMOC at MSNBC, and was largely responsible for MSNBC’s ratings growth.

On Thursday night at 8 p.m., Olbermann delivered 1.11 million viewers, nearly doubling the turnout for CNN’s Parker-Spitzer (522,000). As is generally the case, O’Reilly steamrolled over his competition, averaging 2.92 million viewers in the same time slot.