“Little By Little, The Slippery Slope Lost its Ground”

By Chris Ariens 

A lot of the talk inside NBC and MSNBC today is not about the campaigns, or Hurricane Ike or the markets; it’s about today’s news that Keith Olbermann and Chris Matthews have been removed as co-anchors for MSNBC’s political coverage. TVNewser talked with several NBC and MSNBC insiders for their reaction and what the mood is like today. The comments range from ‘it needed to happen’ to asking, ‘what’s next?’

An NBC News executive believes the Olbermann-Matthews pairing was dicey almost from the start — on the night of the New Hampshire primary, when Olbermann and others on his panel mocked John McCain’s victory speech. “It evolved into the monster that it is, and no one was minding the image,” says the executive. “They banked on the team to do the events, and little by little the slippery slope lost its ground.”

An NBC News correspondent told us, it was “a move that needed to happen. There was a perception in the political world that what was going on at MSNBC was bleeding over into NBC News. It was an easy front for the GOP to exploit and thus a shake-up needed to happen.”

Olbermann emailed the Washington Post’s Howard Kurtz with his reasoning for the change. “Phil [Griffin] and I have debated this set-up since late winter/early spring (with me saying, ‘Are you sure this flies?’ and him saying, ‘Yes, but let’s judge it event by event’) and I think we both reached the same point during the RNC.”

In fact, it all came to a head Thursday night after Olbermann made these comments. An MSNBC insider tells us the discussions continued Friday and that Saturday the decision was made. “It’s important to note that we don’t see this as a diminishing of Keith and Chris’ role,” says the insider. “They’re still going to be front and center, it’s just that we’re adding David to the mix as anchor.”

In Washington, home base for 11-year MSNBC veteran Matthews, the perception is that he has become the fall guy. “There’s a real sense of unfairness that Chris is being made to pay for Keith’s behavior. Not just on Chris’ part — others at the network recognize it, too,” a person close to the situation tells us.

As for the future, the NBC News exec tells us, “From an executive level, I don’t know what they’re thinking. Is Gregory the answer? Who knows? But there’s a lot at stake.” MSNBC decision-makers are also quick to make clear that Olbermann is still the anchor for big news stories, just not politics.

Olbermann signed a contract extension last year that keeps him at the peacock until 2011, with an extension until 2013 in the works. Matthews’ deal with MSNBC is up next year, and the MSNBC insider we talked to says it’s unclear what Matthews is thinking.