Keith Olbermann and ESPN are giving it another try.
The controversial sportscaster turned political pundit turned sportscaster again is heading back to the network that made him and his temper legendary for a new nightly show to run on ESPN2. It will go up against against SportsCenter, the network confirmed Wednesday, ending long-running rumors that Olbermann was heading back to ESPN.
“(I’m) grateful for the chance not only to work on necessary viewing for sports fans but the chance to put a different ending on the story for ESPN,” he said in a conference call with reporters. “We are indelibly intertwined and I know we can't go back and undo everything that went on 20 years ago but I would like to do my best to correct as much of it as I can.”
If the show, named "Olbermann" and scheduled to run at 11 p.m. ET on weeknights, is successful both in ratings and critically, it will end what has been one of the longest public apology tours in perhaps U.S. history. His first tour of the network, which ended in 1997, has been a legend captured in books and stories about ESPN, many unflattering to him.
After Mike Freeman’s book "ESPN: The Uncensored History" came out in 2001, full of tales of Olbermann’s temper, he issued one of his first major apologies, writing a column for Salon.com titled "ESPN: Mea Culpa" to explain the pressure he said he felt to make the network succeed.
"I now read with horror of my ESPN2 co-host, Ms. Kolber, sequestering herself in the women's bathroom and weeping over how I treated her," he wrote. "She told Freeman that as things deteriorated, I wouldn’t talk to her. She's wrong: I couldn’t talk to her. I pumped up some small-scale complaints into a scenario in which she was at fault for everything ESPN2 hadn't become. I wasn't completely obtuse back then, and if anything would have cut through my neuroses, it would've been a colleague’s tears. If I had known, I think I could've jumped over the fence I'd built around myself and said what the inner guy always knew: No TV show is worth crying over. Suzy: I'm sorry.”
Olbermann's behavior, since his time at ESPN (he has worked on ESPN radio shows since his 1997 departure), has not always been the most positively portrayed. He was fired from Fox Sports, left a bitter taste at MSNBC when he left that network, and had a similar meltdown with Al Gore's Current TV, where he was hired to be a left-leaning and big name host meant to propel the network forward.
As to whether this time will be different or not, ESPN President John Skipper told reporters he was confident the two had ironed out whatever issues might result in a similar blowup this time at ESPN.
"We don't ultimately have to work through anything except my having some discussions and being sensitive to some of the previous issues,” Skipper said.
Olbermann, for his part, expressed his excitement in getting the chance to prove to everyone at ESPN what the network meant to him.
The show, Skipper and Olbermann said, will be a blend of discussions, interviews and highlights that Olbermann said may "be evocative of what I've done in the past."
Perhaps what’s most different this time around is that the same pressure isn't there. The network, unlike Current TV, to some aspects MSNBC and even ESPN during the early years, is bigger than Olbermann. Olbermann himself has already solidified his reputation as a bit of a ticking time bomb whose goodwill toward his employer can expire with a moment's notice. But those moments, in Olbermann's history, seem to most happen when he feels under an enormous amount of pressure.
"Several ESPN folks suggested to Freeman that I was trying deliberately to violate the rules -- appearing on other networks and writing for publications without notifying them just to tweak management,” he wrote in 2002. "That was almost right on the money. But it wasn't as simple as merely trying to annoy ESPN or John Walsh or whoever else. It was me trying to give myself an excuse to get out from under the pressure of working in an environment of my own creation in which I daily expected the blame ax to fall. It was prepackaged sour grapes.”
Regardless of his off-camera issues, James Miller, who wrote "These Guys Have All The Fun: Inside The World Of ESPN", points out Olbermann was always an incredible talent who "was part of one of the most significant SportsCenter pairings in the company history." Often, Miller, pointed out, Olbermann was bringing up issues that many people agreed with him on.
"If you were someone watching television and there wasn't any talk of it or my book hadn't been done, you would have no reason to think (anything about Olbermann) other than this guy was really good at what he did ... " he said. "It (just) wasn't fun sometimes for the producers and management."
A year away from the anchor's desk, Miller believes, could have made a huge difference in Olbermann's future at the network.
"I think that Keith, based on what he’s said today in the conference call and the statement (released by the network) suggests that the last year have been a reflective year for him and I think he misses being on the air," Miller said. "So one might say that you know this was kind of a significant time in his life and he said he wasn't going to waste it. I think he’s walking into this in a different way than he's walked into other things in the past."
His promises, Miller said, hasn't quite made all the difference for many ESPN employees who he said have expressed concern about the return of Olbermann.
"I've heard from many staffers -- it's interesting that there is certainly those who remember the mid-90s and not in a positive way and so they’re highly skeptical and there’s people who weren’t around then and are kind of excited because they’re getting a big name personality for an important time slot so as someone said to me, 'how can this not help us?'" he said. "Bristol is a tale of two cities right now."
For Olbermann, the difference may be that he's older, or maybe wiser, or maybe burned through too many bridges to continue to have a career. But it’s also that no matter what happens with this show – whether it’s a success or a failure, ESPN has grown into a corporation massive enough to continue on without much of a mark. Their mission, which in addition to building up better late night programming, is bringing the publicity heading towards Fox’s new sports network back to them, can go on with Olbermann or without him. For the network, the latter part of those objectives, is already accomplished.
And for Olbermann, who always seems happier when talking about his beloved baseball, few will blink an eye if it doesn't work out.
Which almost makes it much more likely that it will.
"I'm overwhelmed by the chance to begin anew with ESPN," he said in a statement released after the announcement. "I've been gone for 16 years and not one day in that time has passed without someone connecting me to the network. Our histories are indelibly intertwined and frankly I have long wished that I had the chance to make sure the totality of that story would be a completely positive one. I'm grateful to friends and bosses -- old and new -- who have permitted that opportunity to come to pass.
"I'm not going to waste it."
— Keith Olbermann (@KeithOlbermann) July 17, 2013