Updated (1:35 p.m.) It's unclear what will come of the recently publicized spat between Keith Olbermann and Current, but all signs point to a reckoning. The New York Times Business section gave the Olbermann-Current spat the front page treatment on Thursday with a gravelly report by Brian Stelter, who more or less broke the story of some internal tension after noticing the conspicuous absence of the network's biggest star on the biggest political news night of the year (so far). Times media reporter Brian Stelter squeezed some good details out of his sources and chose his words carefully:
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.
Keith Olbermann did not like Brian Stelter's story. "Why do you believe some of the shit you read?" he tweeted at a follower who alluded to Olbermann's recent absence. Speaking of absences, there was a conspicuous absence of direct quotes from Olbermann in the Times piece. Another follower tweeted later in the morning, "Give writer interview next time, probably be a better story @BrianStelter." Olbermann snapped back, "Not when he tries to threaten me." Well this is getting heated, isn't it? And familiarly, Olbermann is turning "the press" into a combatant. Update: Stelter provided some perspective on the extent to which he "threaten[ed]" Olbermann:
@adamclarkestes I told Keith what I was planning to report so that he'd have time to respond. That's not a threat, that's journalism.— Brian Stelter (@brianstelter) January 5, 2012
Olbermann doesn't exactly look like a saint in the coverage, and its not surprising that he'd get riled up. Olbermann did offer a statement to The Hollywood Reporter on Wednesday afternoon. "I was not given a legitimate opportunity to host under acceptable conditions," Olbermann said in a statement. "They know it and we know it. Telling half the story is wrong." Nevertheless, Current isn't exactly being forth-coming with details about the relationship. Olbermann pushed back hard against Stelter's earlier report that quoted an anonymous source saying that the star was "disgruntled" at Current, but then an unnamed Current executive said something weird to The Wrap. "I hope Keith is part of our future, but it’s up to Keith … everybody is replaceable." Next thing you know, these kinds of headlines are being written: "Is Keith Olbermann leaving Current TV just months after arriving?" Forbes' Jeff Bercovici certainly thinks so, calling the latest contretemps "a familiar dynamic." Bercovici noted the deja vu effect in a Tuesday evening blog post, "Olbermann’s bosses try to handle tensions quietly, while Olbermann opts to take his grievances public, believing he can leverage his large personal following to put pressure on his network."
What about the whole "any press is good press" idea? Current after all, didn't exactly explode in ratings after Olbermann joined the network. As Stelter pointed out last week, "Countdown on Current draws just a fraction of the one million viewers that Mr. Olbermann routinely had on MSNBC…in his first months he was known to be averaging about 200,000 viewers a night [at Current]." Maybe the headline-grabbing reports of internal turmoil at Current will tease some more viewers to go and check out what all the fuss is about? We'll see, but Gawker's Hamilton Nolan suggests that this whole debacle presents a branding problem:
Keith Olbermann has done something rather spectacular: he has made cable television executives into sympathetic characters. They have to deal with Keith Olbermann's bullshit, after all. The details of each particular self-entitled tantrum aren't really important; the salient fact is that this will never stop. This is how Keith Olbermann is. If you hire him, this is what you will get. He has some redeeming qualities, yes. He has, within him, the ability to be a great TV newsman. Sadly, his ego will never let that happen. It's time to just… let him go.
That would be an expensive outcome for all parties involved. Current's already paid Olbermann millions to join the company and build out a staff to support him; Olbermann holds an equity stake in the company, and sounds like he truly wants the see the project through to success. Maybe Olbermann and Current just had a very public dispute and will resolve whatever issues might have been raised smoothly. Maybe it wasn't that big a dispute to begin with and Olbermann will knock the socks off everyone when he does go on air to cover the elections. Or maybe, as the dark tone of the many recent reports about what's happening at Current are true, and the shadow cast over Olbermann's tenure at the company will continue to grow. Clouds gathering over a thirsty field of media reporters tend to lead to thunder, lightning and eventually a shower of bad press. So far, so stormy.