Keith Olbermann dreaded that he’d be remembered as the guy who rose to stardom at ESPN then left less than amicably.
“I don’t want that to be in the obituary, flatly,” he said on a conference call Wednesday.
So now he’s returning to the company as a late-night host, insisting that, this time, a gig won’t end badly.
Olbermann expressed gratitude for “this chance to put a different ending on the story of my relationship with ESPN.”
“We are indelibly intertwined,” he said. “I know that we can’t go back and undo everything that happened 20 years ago in those environs. But I would like to do my best to correct as much of it as I can. I appreciate the fresh start. We’ll see how much success I can get in that way, and how much success I can get in the way of the show.
“But I’m going to do my damnedest for both.”
“Olbermann,” which premieres Aug. 26, will generally air at 11 p.m. ET Monday-Friday on ESPN2, depending on live event coverage on the channel. Executives hope the show can exploit the ratings boost from the frequent live event lead-ins.
Olbermann’s new ESPN offering will often air opposite his old one, “SportsCenter” on the main ESPN network. The company has found over the years that broadcasting concurrent programming on its various channels expands its overall audience.
And starting next month, ESPN will face competition in the 11 p.m. slot from new cable channel Fox Sports 1’s nightly highlights and analysis show.
“We’re happy to compete,” ESPN President John Skipper said. “Clearly the timing of some of what we’re doing is intended to put us in a competitive position.”
“Olbermann,” based in New York City, will weave together commentary, interviews, highlights, panel discussions. The host hinted that some segments may be “evocative” of those from previous gigs.
But no politics.
“If I wanted to go and do politics, I’d still be doing politics,” he said. “This clearly is something else.”
Olbermann said he had no content clause in his contract, but that didn’t matter — he’s signed on to do a sports show. Skipper said politics — or pop culture — would slip on when that intersected with sports.
Olbermann’s last two politically oriented jobs didn’t end well either. After eight years as a prime-time host at MSNBC, he quit abruptly in January 2011. He later joined Current TV but lasted a year before he was taken off the air; he would go on to file a lawsuit, which was settled out of court.
The 54-year-old Olbermann made his name with his catchphrases and sardonic tone as a “SportsCenter” anchor from 1992-97. But his stint ended amid harsh words and clashes with management over his right to do outside work. He was suspended briefly for not seeking permission to record public service announcements.
“I could apologize a thousand times. We could get everybody that ever took offense at anything I did and bring them all into one place — we’d probably need Yankee Stadium. I could get out on the field and point to everybody: ‘I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry,’” Olbermann said.
“But practically speaking,” he added, “particularly for those people who aren’t sure, all that’s going to make a difference is how I conduct myself.”
Olbermann said he started thinking about a way to reunite with ESPN even before he left, noting that he later worked for ESPN Radio.
He said he had an impromptu “heart-to-heart” at Tuesday’s baseball All-Star game with longtime ESPN anchor Chris Berman, who gave him his sports broadcasting start four decades ago as his assistant at their high school radio station in Tarrytown, N.Y.
Olbermann told his former-and-future colleague he put out feelers to the network more than a year earlier partly because he wanted his association with ESPN to be remembered for innovative television, not acrimonious splits.
“It meant something to people,” he said of his “SportsCenter” glory days, “and it meant something to us.”
Skipper, who joined ESPN the same year Olbermann left, said he spoke to many employees who had worked with the former anchor. He had to make a “calculation” of how much Olbermann’s “singular talent” would help the network.
“It’s much more about what Keith is going to do than about what people at ESPN have in their memories or previous experiences,” Skipper said. “Keith is committed to working through that, and I’m in support of that.”
Olbermann served as co-host of NBC’s Sunday night NFL pregame show from 2007-09, reuniting with old “SportsCenter” anchor partner Dan Patrick for the last two seasons. He recently added another sports gig, hosting TBS’s Major League Baseball postseason studio show.
Olbermann said executives at both networks supported making the two jobs work. He’ll take time away from his late-night hosting for his baseball responsibilities this fall.
For now, at least, he’s a sports anchor, an ESPN commentator, an employee speaking glowingly about his bosses.
“I could say to you that there were moments when I thought this would never happen and this was not something that was even within the realm of possibility,” Olbermann said of reuniting with the folks in Bristol, Conn. “But every time I’ve made a prediction like that, even internally to myself, I have been completely wrong.
“There is no way to forecast my career path, and I’ve given up trying.”