U.S. News

Olbermann in a Clash at New Job

Brian Stelter|The New York Times

The broadcaster Keith Olbermann is famous for estranging himself from his bosses, be it at ESPN, Fox or MSNBC.

Keith Olbermann
Donna Ward | Getty Images

At his new home, Al Gore’s Current TV, he has done it in record time.

Mr. Olbermann, who was hired last year to be the top star of the upstart liberal news source, had been on the job scarcely three months when trouble started. He declined Current’s requests to host special hours of election coverage, apparently out of frustration about technical difficulties that have plagued his 8 p.m. program, “Countdown.”

The channel decided to produce election shows without him. Mr. Olbermann, however, said he did not know that, and on Tuesday, the day of the Iowa caucus, the cold war of sorts reached a flash point. He held a staff meeting even though “Countdown” had been pre-empted.

Perceiving it to be an act of defiance, David Bohrman, Current’s president, wrote a memo to Mr. Olbermann’s staff telling them that the anchor had long ago given up the opportunity to anchor on election nights. “We assumed,” he wrote, that “Keith had communicated to you.”

“Countdown” was back on the schedule on Wednesday, and Current declined to comment about Mr. Olbermann’s status at the channel. But the struggle for control — which Mr. Olbermann talked about on Twitter — hints at turmoil behind the scenes at Current and highlights how hard it can be to build big media brands around unpredictable personalities.

For both parties, millions of dollars are at stake. Current, which has occupied a lonely position on the cable dial for years, is investing in programming to become a liberal alternative to MSNBC and other cable news channels.

The channel, which is privately held by Mr. Gore and others, is estimated to have made about $115 million in revenue in 2011, according to the research firm SNL Kagan, with a cash flow margin of 22.7 percent. The much bigger MSNBC, a unit of NBCUniversal, is estimated to have made $409 million in revenue with a cash flow margin of 45 percent.

Current is a start-up of sorts, lacking the backing of a deep-pocketed parent company — something Mr. Olbermann hasn’t contended with in years. When the channel put on Iowa caucus coverage without Mr. Olbermann on Tuesday, it was derided by online commenters as cheaply produced; “the production values were only slightly better than local public access,” wrote Jonah Goldberg of the conservative National Review, calling it “hilarious.”

Mr. Olbermann did not directly cite production values as a reason for his absence, but he said in a statement to The Hollywood Reporter, “I was not given a legitimate opportunity to host under acceptable conditions.”

He deferred an interview request to his manager, Michael Price, who said he expected that Mr. Olbermann would stay at Current. Mr. Price said he was unable to answer other questions because of confidentiality clauses in the anchorman’s contract, which is believed to last five years and be worth $50 million total.

A television heavyweight, Mr. Olbermann joined ESPN 20 years ago — Wednesday happened to be the anniversary of his first day on the job there — and anchored “SportsCenter” for years despite feuds with ESPN executives.

At MSNBC, too, where he spoke out forcefully against the Iraq war, helping to give the channel the liberal identity it now has, he refused to speak to his bosses for long stretches. But he stayed for eight years before departing there with only a moment’s notice last January.

When he was hired by Current shortly thereafter, he was given an equity stake in the company and given the title chief news officer, so he is both a boss and a person who is notoriously resistant to the notion of having a boss. Current seemed aware of the risk; even as the election coverage disagreement became public last week, an executive said, “This is Keith being Keith.”

Other staffers said that Mr. Olbermann, whose “Countdown” started on Current in June, was initially supportive of the channel, but changed his tone toward the end of the year, possibly because of management changes and the technical problems.

On several occasions, satellite feeds have stopped, lights have burned out and graphics packages have failed, embarrassing Mr. Olbermann.

“Countdown” on Current draws a fraction of the one million viewers that Mr. Olbermann attracted on MSNBC. In the fall, to complement the 8 p.m. “Countdown,” Current lined up Cenk Uygur, a former MSNBC anchor, and Jennifer M. Granholm, a former Michigan governor, to anchor shows before and after it. When Mr. Olbermann declined, according to Mr. Bohrman’s memo on Tuesday, to be “the sole anchor and executive producer of our primary and caucus coverage,” they were booked in his place, beginning in December for two post-Republican debate programs. The programs drew minuscule ratings.

When asked if Mr. Olbermann would be on Current next Tuesday, the night of the New Hampshire primary, the channel’s spokeswoman — who has been on the job for just two days — said a special report was scheduled, and added, “We hope that Keith will play a lead role in that coverage.”