-->By Dominic Patten & Sharon Waxman
It was Keith Olbermann's decision to leave his high-profile perch at MSNBC, TheWrap has learned. The outspoken host abruptly announced his departure on Friday evening, sending shock waves through the cable news world.
But the sudden departure has a history, and the timing does not rule out a preemptive MSNBC move. The gadfly commentator first told the network last April that he wanted to leave and began negotiating his exit then, according to an individual with knowledge of the situation.
Olbermann abandoned the notion of leaving at that time but revived his plans in recent weeks with new representation from the talent agency ICM.
With two years left on his $7 million a year contract, Olbermann was seeking a full exit package but he really has his eye on creating his own media empire in the style of Huffington Post, according to the individual. That way, Olbermann would control his own brand and, in his view, potentially earn far more as an owner.
On Friday, Olbermann informed viewers that he had been told that "this was going to be the last edition" of “Countdown,” which suggested that the departure was not voluntary. The host offered no more information.
Neither did MSNBC.
"MSNBC and Keith Olbermann have ended their contract," said the network in a statement released minutes after Olbermann who ended with his signature flourish of thrown papers, was off the air. "The last broadcast of "Countdown with Keith Olbermann" will be this evening," the statement continued. "MSNBC thanks Keith for his integral role in MSNBC's success and we wish him well in his future endeavors."
The departure of Olbermann, who recently left his long time talent agent Jean Sage to work with a troika at ICM, came so abruptly that MSNBC was still running promos for him and his show an hour after he signed off for the last time.
Immediately after the host said his goodbyes, speculation started that his departure had something to do with the recently approved merger between NBC Universal and Comcast.
"Of course that is an easy angle to take considering the timing," an individual close to the company told TheWrap, "but it is not true."
The Comcast merger is set to occur next Friday, January 28.
"Comcast has not closed the transaction for NBC Universal and has no operational control at any of its properties including MSNBC," Comcast said in a statement late Friday night. "We pledged from the day the deal was announced that we would not interfere with NBC Universal's news operations. We have not and we will not."
The tempestuous Olbermman did however,according to the New York Times, “came to an agreement with NBC’s corporate management late this week to settle his contract and step down.”
Though the announcement was quick, there was some warning. Despite the presence of Rachel Maddow and other anchors and on-air personalities, Olbermann was nowhere to be seen Thursday at a lunch NBC News hosted in New York City for advertisers.
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Here's what's interesting to me about Olbermann leaving. I think it's a direct result of the changing TV landscape and a harbinger of the more changes to come. And what's as interesting to me is two former guys from ESPN's SportsCenter are lead dogs on this sled into the future.
Several years ago, Dan Patrick, fed up with rules and dictates from the "mothership" of ESPN leaves to do his own thing. And his own thing has been lucrative. Dan Patrick has established himself as a sports media brand with all the rights and paydays associated with being the owner. Clearly this was not lost on his old SportsCenter anchor buddy, Keith Olbermann. Throw in the respect for what Arrianne has created with the Huffingtonpost and you can begin to understand why Keith was willing to walk away from a cushy multi-million dollar network deal. Olbermann will be back, but this time as the owner/boss.
And I suspect sooner or later this opportunity to create your own media brand will begin to happen more and more on the local level as well. Clearly the financial numbers are different. And yes, there already are some local medial folks that have been forced to give it a try through involuntary separation. But content is more and more becoming separated from the ownership of the distribution channel. So as Keith and Dan use to say years ago on SportsCenter, this is going to be a really big show.