A cable network executive is discussing his experience of working with Keith Olbermann:
"Some people hated to see Keith go, but at a certain point, no matter who it is, if they really don't want to be there and they're at cross purposes with the people who are running the company, it's inevitable."
Al Gore of Current TV? His partner, lawyer Joel Hyatt?
No, it was John Walsh of Olbermann's first cable network, ESPN, according to James Andrew Miller and Tom Shales' splendid oral history, "Those Guys Have All the Fun: Inside the World of ESPN."
It identifies, rather nicely, Olbermann's M.O., which is:
1) to be way too smart and too good for every job he has ever been hired for;
2) to rub the world's face in that fact;
3) especially his employers', whose initial buoyant expectations were inserted where the sun doesn't shine by Olbermann with as much vehemence and creativity as his terms of employment would permit;
4) instigate some sort of violent job divorce and departure.
After ESPN came Fox Sports. Then his extraordinary, network-changing run at MSNBC, and now Gore and Hyatt's dinky little Current network, with which Olbermann reportedly signed a $50 million, five-year contract after MSNBC cashiered him. In his statement on his sudden Friday night replacement by Eliot Spitzer -- old Client 9 himself -- Olbermann apologizes to his co-workers and his audience for getting involved with Current in the first place and takes the blame for doing so himself.
Current, in explaining the newest episode of Keith and His Serial Departures and Expulsions, implied that Olbermann didn't exactly uphold the "values of respect, openness, collegiality and loyalty to our viewers" that it expected. Which, certainly, describes a fellow who won't promote other people's shows, who reportedly missed 19 of 41 working days in January and February, including important preprimary days, and who required either eight different limo services (or three, depending on whom you believe) because he kept complaining that some drivers smelled bad and others talked to him.
On Olbermann's side, it's reported that he had throat troubles early in the year and that the Current people refused to upgrade his working conditions, as they had promised. There were technical snafus during his show and no improvements to his unsatisfactory set, despite the reported $10 million annual salary they were giving him.
From a million nightly viewers -- with healthy demographics, too -- at his zenith at MSNBC, he was reportedly down to a "demo" of 30,000 viewers between the ages of 25 and 54 on Current.
If internecine warfare in the TV racket amuses you (and how could it not?), you don't want to miss Letterman tonight when Olbermann -- one of the most gifted and eloquent wielders of a blowtorch ever to be employed in television -- will tell his story to Dave (who will, you can bet, be sympathetic but also artfully insistent on dealing with as many of Olbermann's "prima donna" issues as possible).
Whatever the courts eventually make of this -- assuming Olbermann actually follows through on his threat to sue -- certain things seem obvious: that Olbermann, along with being one of the most gifted figures in TV history, is even more addicted to on-the-job turmoil than he is talented, which, after a certain period, can't help making him close to unemployable.
Which is why so many of us cherish his antics. After Keith and his blowtorch are finished, you can't hide anything anymore. Everyone knows more about the endemic dysfunctions and corruptions of television than they did before Keith got finished hurling himself against the battlements.
By the time he's finished, a former U.S. vice president will probably wish he were back battling Dubya in the Supreme Court. (Then again, Letterman has demonstrated fondness for Gore, too, including appearing as a guest lecturer in his class.)
So everyone's question is: Now what? Is old Keith, at long last, provably unemployable in cable TV?
Perhaps I'm stark, staring mad (I may be), but I don't think so. I think he's only an ironclad, artfully designed contract away from gainful employment at CNN or -- don't laugh -- Fox News or even Oprah's network OWN. Work out in stone all the whys, wherefores and monetary penalties in advance, and you might have a deal.
There are certain similarities in the Oprah and Keith cases. Both were expected to bring their mass popularity -- of different sorts, obviously -- to dinky cable circumstances, but couldn't, thereby proving conclusively that it's the combination of setting and personality that strikes lightning, and not one or the other.
There's some "art," for want of a better word, involved, not just the gale force of someone's talent and charisma. And dare one say, "a loyalty to viewers," too, that exceeds self-concerns.
In other words, Oprah appearing with her BFF, Gayle King, on CBS' "The Early Show" as a one-shot Monday was a big deal in a way that her appearances on OWN are not, necessarily. (So, of course, is Katie Couric's current habitation of "Good Morning America," filling in for Robin Roberts.)
In the realm of television arts and sciences, everything worked out satisfactorily if not swimmingly on Sunday evening's huge new programming developments.
Which is to say that AMC's "The Killing" definitely made a mistake by destroying the oddball "two against the world" alliance of Mireille Enos and Joel Kinnaman, but it is doing everything else so well in continuing its "Who killed Rosie Larsen?" tale that it will get away with it. The waterlogged Seattle tale is TV's best current noir.
The season finales of "House of Lies" and "Californication" on Showtime were cliffhangers of different sorts, but engaging in exactly the way series partisans expected.
Think of "loyalty to viewers" as being a bit like longtime Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart's classic description of pornography: You know it when you see it.