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 AJR  The Beat

From AJR,   December 1998  issue

Never Say Never   

MSNBC's Olberman leaves "The Big Show" for sports.

By Bridget Gutierrez & Lori Robertson
Bridget Gutierrez is a reporter for the San Antonio Express-News.      Lori Robertson (robertson.lori@gmail.com), a former AJR managing editor, is a senior contributing writer for the magazine.      

After 17 months as host of MSNBC 's ``The Big Show," Keith Olbermann calls it quits, trading in his news gig for the familiar role of sportscaster. Olbermann becomes anchor and senior correspondent on ``Fox Sports News," which airs nightly on cable's Fox Sports Net . He's been openly dissatisfied with pressure from his bosses to focus his MSNBC show on all things Monica. But Olbermann, 39, says that's not the reason he's leaving. ``Had there not been a Monica Lewinsky , this still would've happened," he says. ``I just missed sports a great deal."

Those sound like strange words coming from the man who, prior to his MSNBC days, walked off the set of ESPN 's ``SportsCenter"--where he had become a cult figure--determined never to look back. ``The epitome of `been there, done that,' " he told TV Guide at the time, ``is me moving back to Los Angeles to do another sports-highlight show." Yet here he is, abandoning Secaucus, New Jersey, and heading back to La-La Land--to do sports.

Why the reversal? Olbermann, who has worked 22 years in sports broadcasting, quotes singer Joni Mitchell , saying, ``You don't know what you got till it's gone." He allows the ``analogy is a little egotistical," but says, ``I think I was a better newscaster than Michael Jordan was a baseball player." Just as Jordan needed a fling with baseball to confirm he was really a basketball player, Olbermann says, ``I think I needed to go to news for a year to get out of my system that I was anything but a sportscaster."

Whatever the reason, Fox is happy about his change of heart. Fox tried unsuccessfully to woo Olbermann to its fledgling show last year, before the anchor opted for MSNBC.

``Keith has always been on our wish list," says Michael Lewellen , Fox Sports Net vice president of media relations. ``Now we've got him." But not without a hefty price tag. Fox paid MSNBC close to $1 million to free the prized anchor of the two years remaining on his contract and gave him a $1 million salary to match. Olbermann will debut on Fox in mid-December.

While ``The Big Show's" preoccupation with the Clinton/Lewinsky saga drew criticism, Olbermann brought a reasoned, measured tone to the subject absent from many other such programs. Some ``SportsCenter" fans missed the more freewheeling style of his ESPN days, although his trademark deadpan and arch observations were much in evidence on MSNBC.

The irreverent Olbermann doesn't see a return to news in his future, but he's reluctant to say never again. When it comes to such predictions, he says, ``I have been so wildly inaccurate."