MSNBC never had any doubt about what it was getting when it made Keith Olbermann the face of the network in 2003: a highly talented broadcaster, a distinctive and outspoken voice and a mercurial personality with a track record of attacking his superiors and making early exits.
Even his own boss, Phil Griffin, offered this assessment in 2008, when Mr. Olbermann was being heavily criticized by supporters of Hillary Rodham Clinton because he was urging her to drop out of the race to become the Democratic presidential candidate.
For Mrs. Clinton’s supporters, Mr. Griffin said in an interview with The New Yorker magazine, “It was, like, you meet a guy and fall in love with him.” But, he said, “then you commit yourself to him, and he turns out to be a jerk and difficult and brutal.”
Still, the news of his abrupt departure from “Countdown” — delivered by Mr. Olbermann on Friday night — came as a shock to his many fans, some of whom accused Comcast, the incoming owner of MSNBC’s parent, NBC Universal, of forcing out the host for political reasons.
Many people inside the television industry are astonished that a cable network’s highest-rated host, whose forceful personality and liberal advocacy had lifted MSNBC from irrelevance to competitiveness and profitability, would be ushered out the door with no fanfare, no promoted farewell show and only a perfunctory thanks for his efforts.
But underlying the decision, which one executive involved said was not a termination but a “negotiated separation,” were years of behind-the-scenes tension, conflicts and near terminations.
Mr. Griffin, along with Jeff Zucker, the head of NBC Universal, and Steve Capus, the president of NBC News, had long protected and defended Mr. Olbermann, even when insiders like the NBC anchor emeritus Tom Brokaw publicly took Mr. Olbermann to task. Mr. Brokaw said Mr. Olbermann had “gone too far” in campaign coverage that openly took Democratic positions.
Inside the offices of MSNBC, staff members grew more restive about Mr. Olbermann’s temperament. Some days Mr. Olbermann threatened not to come to work at all and a substitute anchor had to be notified to be on standby.
Mr. Olbermann was within one move of being fired in November after he was suspended for making donations to Democratic Congressional candidates. He threatened to make an appearance on ABC’s “Good Morning America” to protest the suspension; Mr. Zucker was prepared to fire him on the spot if he did, according to a senior NBC Universal executive who declined to be identified in discussing confidential deliberations.
"I fired him. He's crazy."
The pattern of great promise followed by eventual disaffection was established early in Mr. Olbermann’s career. As a young sports reporter for UPI Television, he was fired for telling his boss “this is the minor leagues here.” In the early 1980s, he had a short, stormy tenure at CNN.
He achieved national prominence on ESPN’s “SportsCenter” in the early 1990s, but left after a difficult time that included a reprimand for making an appearance on “The Daily Show” without permission. He labeled his departure from ESPN in 1997 a “nuclear war.”
Mr. Olbermann popped up on MSNBC for the first time in 1998, hosting a news show that evolved, against his wishes, into a nightly examination of the Clinton sex scandal. He left and joined the Fox Sports Network. That stint ended in acrimony as well. Rupert Murdoch, head of the News Corporation , which ran the sports network, later said, “I fired him; he’s crazy.”
He joined MSNBC in 2003 as a fill-in host. Less than two months later, Mr. Olbermann won the job full time. He transformed the show into “Countdown,” and he — and MSNBC — were off and running.
He managed to expand his audience steadily. Starting from a base of a couple hundred thousand viewers, he jumped more than 50 percent from 2006 to 2007, reaching 726,000. From there he built the show until it surpassed one million viewers a night, still well behind Fox News but ahead of CNN.
In a New Yorker interview, Mr. Griffin of MSNBC recalled those early appearances: “First day he was in TV, I knew right away that Keith had something that I’d never seen. He was made for this. I mean, the guy is crazy, but he is made for this.”
(In the same interview, Mr. Olbermann could not help commenting: “Phil thinks he’s my boss.”)
Even some of those at MSNBC who acknowledged being spurned or insulted by Mr. Olbermann said they remained in awe of his productivity and the effect he had on the network. Several considered him in essence a five-day-a-week editorial writer, who had to perform his editorial live on television.
It was an “incredible energy expenditure,” one longtime acquaintance of his said, suggesting that there was no reason to think Mr. Olbermann would stay in his chair indefinitely.
Mr. Olbermann himself alluded to the stresses of the job when he said on Friday night, “There were many occasions, particularly in the last two and a half years, where all that surrounded the show, but never the show itself, was just too much for me.”
In an interview, Mr. Griffin acknowledged that Mr. Olbermann was a “brand definer” for MSNBC — not just because of the success of “Countdown” but because his show was used to develop other hosts for the network as well.
Rachel Maddow started as a frequent “Countdown” guest, as did Lawrence O’Donnell, who began as a fill-in host for Mr. Olbermann and will inherit his 8 p.m. time slot on Monday. Mr. Griffin called Mr. Olbermann “the tent pole at the center” of the network’s sensibility.
At the same time, stories about Mr. Olbermann’s thin skin circulated widely in the newsroom. One such story, which was recalled independently by two hosts, dates to early December, when Mr. O’Donnell, then carving out some success as the 10 p.m. host on MSNBC, collegially proposed via e-mail that Mr. Olbermann come on his show to talk about President Obama’s tax-cut compromise.
Mr. O’Donnell had written this post on Twitter: “Liberal critics of the Obama deal say exactly what Pat Buchanan said of George H. W. Bush: he’s weak.” The message speculated that Mr. Obama’s critics would do to him what Mr. Buchanan “did to H.W. Bush: destroy him and help elect a president from the other party.”
Mr. Olbermann apparently interpreted the message as a personal attack; he declined to appear on Mr. O’Donnell’s show. “I saw what you wrote on Twitter,” he snapped at Mr. O’Donnell.
In the last several months, the relationship began moving toward its denouement: Mr. Olbermann hired new agents from the big firm ICM in September, parting from Jean Sage, the agent who had steered his career through all its previous rocky shoals. Several NBC executives said the move was made to facilitate an eventual settlement of the two years left on Mr. Olbermann’s contract.
Mr. Olbermann’s future is up in the air, mainly because he agreed to a deal that would keep him off television for six to nine months, according to several executives involved in his exit. He is also apparently forbidden to discuss his departure.
One NBC executive involved in the decision to settle Mr. Olbermann’s contract said that he was allowed to work in radio or on the Internet and would presumably be free to return to television in time for the 2012 election cycle.
As for MSNBC, Mr. Griffin expressed confidence in the network’s new lineup: Mr. O’Donnell at 8, Ms. Maddow at 9 and Ed Schultz at 10. It was not clear exactly how long that plan had been in place, however. The anchors did not find out that their shows were shifting until the public announcement on Friday night.
Mr. Griffin said: “I believe the changes that have been made fit who we are. We’re going to be as creative as ever. We’ll be there.”
But they will be there without Mr. Olbermann, the tent pole that the network built itself around.
One NBC News executive said on Sunday: “Give us a bit of credit for getting eight years out of him. That’s the longest he’s been anywhere.”