AJR  Features
From AJR,   September 1997

His Way   

Keith Olbermann tore up the television rule book, and his witty, irreverent sports reporting on ESPN attracted a cult following. Now he takes the act to MSNBC and the world of news.

By Mark Lisheron
Senior Contributing Writer Mark Lisheron (mark@texaswatchdog.org) is Austin bureau chief for Texas Watchdog, a government accountability news Web site.      

T HESE ARE GOOD DAYS FOR KEITH OLBERMANN. Mornings with the newspapers, magazines, C-SPAN and CNN. Days as much away from the dreaded Bristol, Connecticut, the not very cosmopolitan home of ESPN, as they are in Manhattan.

They are also uncertain days, even for someone with the confidence and ego to drive employers crazy. Olbermann, 38, who developed a kind of cult following for his witty irreverence on ESPN's ``SportsCenter," will be launching a one-hour news interview program in late September on MSNBC.

Olbermann was the third ESPN sports anchor to transcend the field and become an American celebrity, with his own television commercials and his picture in People magazine. But it is a much more fragile and dangerous kind of celebrity, fashioned upon the rare image of a broadcaster standing apart not only from sports but also from the profession of covering sports while commenting on both.

Fans of the wildly popular ``SportsCenter" loved Olbermann's deadpan stares at the camera following the replay of yet another inane locker room sound bite. His trademark descriptions--``It's deep, and I don't think it's playable" for a replayed homerun, or ``They'reÉnotÉ gonnaÉgetÉhim," a loving if shameless homage to broadcasting great Jack Buck--are among the best known of an entire lexicon of ``SportsCenter" catch phrases that have become part of the fan language.

Chris Berman became ESPN's first star by joshing sports hysteria while all the while embracing it. The cheeky Craig Kilborn followed, creating a style better suited to the Hollywood celebrities he now mocks on his Comedy Channel program, ``The Daily Show." Olbermann and his equally droll coanchor Dan Patrick struck a balance, creating a new kind of sports program as dependent on fan disdain as it was on fan affection. While amusing themselves with deliriously obscure cultural references, the pair reveled in the irony of delivering sports highlights with straight faces.

Producers shuttling between MSNBC headquarters in Secaucus, New Jersey, and NBC studios at 30 Rockefeller Center in New York City are still not quite sure what kind of program Olbermann will be doing. Rest assured, executive producer Phil Griffin says, it will be what Keith Olbermann makes of it.

``We're building the show around this talent that we have," Griffin says. ``Keith is one of the best writers in television. Keith ad libs better than half the writers in television write. And Keith makes connections that none of us make--unique connections that aren't always apparent until he takes you there."

At ESPN, Olbermann once began his recap of highlights from the U.S. Open golf tournament by reminding viewers of the debt the tournament owed to the Magna Carta. Without it, no separation of government powers in Great Britain. No model for the American founding fathers, so no Congress. And without all of that, no Congressional Country Club where the golf tournament was being played. Cut to the video.

Dan Patrick, Olbermann's partner and a stabilizing figure for him during his five-and-a-half years at the sports network, is convinced Olbermann's sensibility will translate perfectly to the news because his reference points have always come from outside of sports. Unlike Patrick, who lives to cover major national sporting events, Olbermann grew bored with what he saw as a narrow format, Patrick says.

``I think Keith fell out of love with sports a little bit," Patrick says. ``He has to be challenged. His approach is, `I tried it. I got it. I did it. Now, what next?' He is as well read as anyone I've ever met andÉhe's the most talented guy I ever worked with. But he can't do happy talk."

In the days when TV consisted of three networks and three affiliates per city, the notion of a post-modern, wise-ass sportscaster getting on the air, much less becoming a star, was as likely as a programmer deciding the country was ready for a channel that showed nothing but sports.

Olbermann is sitting at a table at a Rockefeller Center caf*. He is sporting the stubble of his vacation goatee, the facial fur that comes and then goes with each of the corporate conferences he attends to get his MSNBC show, ``The Big Show with Keith Olbermann," off the ground. He is holding his arms up, karate style, about two feet apart, his elbows just above his Cobb salad.

This space between his hands, the great middle of American broadcasting, Olbermann says he is happy to surrender to others. Let me cover the ends, he says, life at the extremes, where life is the most interesting.

``I have never mistaken myself for Coca-Cola or Pepsi," he says. ``I'm birch beer or ginger ale or Dr. Pepper. If you want what's in the middle you don't hire someone like Keith Olbermann. That's all right, though. The spectrum of what's on television is so wide that there is room for someone like me."

W ITH SOMEONE LIKE OLBERMANN, however, the room can get a little crowded. In a business excruciatingly dependent upon egos, Olbermann has the ability to rankle bosses and colleagues, Patrick admits. Because of roadblocks Olbermann builds, which sometimes only he can see, it can be difficult for others to discern where creative restlessness leaves off and petulance takes root.

According to sources at ESPN, when news of his departure made its way around the studios, Bob Ley, a broadcaster squarely in that space between Olbermann's hands, shouted, ``Our long national nightmare is over!"

Ley denies ever having said it, adding that he was ``blown away" by the suggestion that he was happy that Olbermann left. Still, Ley says, ESPN staffers grew tired of the ``soap opera" that was Olbermann's relationship with the network. However brilliant he might be, Ley says, Olbermann lacked the collegiality and sense of common purpose shared by others at the network.

``ESPN. They are the four biggest letters in sports," Ley says. ``ESPN is part of the social fabric of this country. This network has fans, others have viewers. There's a big difference. We will miss Keith, and I mean this sincerely, but this enterprise is too big for them to hang their hat on any one guy. He had an agenda, and it was Keith."

Patrick says friction between the two stemmed from the fact that Olbermann replaced Ley on the coveted 11 p.m. ``SportsCenter," where Ley had teamed up with Patrick for three-and-a-half years. Ley was reassigned to the 6:30 p.m. slot and to a series of investigative shows called ``Outside the Lines."

Ley will acknowledge only one unpleasant exchange, triggered by his objection to an Olbermann on-air remark about an ``Outside the Lines" segment on the Indianapolis 500. Ley rebuked Olbermann for being flip and hurtful. Olbermann was unapologetic, Ley says.

Olbermann was hardly the typical ESPN employee. Much was made about his disparaging remarks about the relentless boredom of Bristol, home of ESPN's headquarters, and its distance from the civilization that he considers New York City. Because of a medical condition, Olbermann doesn't drive and had to rely on taxis in a community where they are at a premium. It's also difficult for Olbermann to fly, making some assignments tough, if not impossible.

In addition to the bluster around the studio and the sometimes withering humor, there were what some staffers considered affectations, like pipe smoking. Ley declines to address any of Olbermann's quirks, but says not everyone was sorry he left, including the network brass, who gave him permission to negotiate with competitors.

Olbermann dismisses Ley as representative of the traditional sports vehicle that was ESPN at its inception and what he and Patrick strove, not always with resounding success, to change. ``I saw his mentality in sports at the local level," Olbermann says of Ley. ``It is the theory that I get paid because those teams play. It is this fear of death or fear of starvation if I do something to jeopardize that. I don't think I was considered difficult for my on-air style. I might have been considered difficult for the way I approach sports. But I think it is hard to argue with the success that `SportsCenter' has had."

Even Ley acknowledges Olbermann is a significant reason that ``SportsCenter" has departed the realm of sports highlight programs and entered the orbit of cultural fixtures. At its bottom line, ``SportsCenter" is the single largest money maker for a network that now generates more than $400 million in revenue each year. Olbermann estimates that ``SportsCenter" alone churned up $60 million last year.

W HEN ESPN WENT ON THE AIR in September of 1979 it was available in about 1.5 million homes and actually watched in a fraction of them. Today, ESPN, along with its spinoff network, ESPN2, is seen at one time or another each week in an estimated 90 million homes worldwide, about 67 million of them in this country. The franchise, or as Ley has put it, ``the spine of the book," is ``SportsCenter."

Until this summer, when he announced he was leaving for MSNBC, Olbermann and Patrick were the spine of ``SportsCenter." In a column in July in the Sporting News, Dave Kindred lamented Olbermann's departure, evoking George Will, the political pundit who described ``SportsCenter" as a thinking man's sports program.

``Surely Will had in mind the Keith Olbermann-Dan Patrick pairing of anchors, the best in the television business since Huntley met Brinkley 40 years ago," Kindred wrote. ``As a sportswriter who struggles to maintain a sense of humor in these times of spoiled-brat millionaires, I envied the Olbermann-Patrick achievement of rendering the sports news at perfect pitch."

It was a pitch developed night after night by Olbermann and Patrick, honed and delivered like jazz musicians, live and unedited. The pair, more than any anchors before them, shaped the sensibility of an around-the-clock sports network that had, for much of its history, relied upon straight-ahead sportscasting. The network capitalized on the new approach in a series of lunatic commercial spots, some of them featuring Olbermann and Patrick.

One particularly surreal ad featured Gheorge Muresan, the almost impossibly homely, 7-foot, 7-inch center for the Washington Bullets (now Wizards) basketball team, dancing with two male ESPN staffers. ESPN, the ads seemed to say, is all the sports you could ever want, with a wink.

Or precisely what Olbermann and Patrick were delivering every night on ``SportsCenter." In addition to writing all of their own scripted material, a requirement for the on-air talent at ESPN, Olbermann and Patrick ad libbed their way through much of their hour-long show.

During his ``SportsCenter" stint, Olbermann seemed to have two goals--ferreting out everything in sports that was interesting to him, and seeing how much of it he could bend and reshape and still get on the air. Ley calls it the ``delicious walk between propriety and impropriety Olbermann and Patrick did with such skilled abandon." The premise was simple and not all that revolutionary, Olbermann says.

Sportscasters over the years had gently poked their meal tickets in the ribs. Warner Wolf built schtick into his broadcasts in New York and Washington, D.C. Howard Cosell transcended the sports he covered with his acerbic, often angry observations. If there was a common thread, Olbermann says, it was the notion that maybe sporting events are not the world's most important events at any given moment.

``I think sports fans today don't mind a good joke played at the expense of the players," he says. ``You have to be careful with that in this business because you still have to entertain and inform. I don't express cynicism, I think I express a healthy, bemused skepticism."

But it is the way he expresses his bemusement and his skepticism that prompted People magazine to count Olbermann as well as Patrick among America's most intriguing people. How many other sportscasters would strive so mightily to write Mozart and Winston Churchill references into his copy to amuse his on-air partner? Or whose single greatest broadcast influence is the radio comedy team of Bob & Ray?

While Olbermann clearly embraces the language, he has perfected an ever-so-slightly mocking delivery that is dependent, for full effect, upon television. The delivery was used to amusing effect in a series of commercials for Boston Market, the restaurant chain, in which Olbermann, with eyebrow arched, exhorts angst-suffused, heroin-chic models to ``just eat something."

``We had that chemistry and rapport from the beginning, although we never spoke about it," Patrick says. ``In our first two years it was like we were saying to the network, `How far can we go with this?' And management fought us a little bit on it. But what has made it so successful, I think, is that he has never forgotten not to upstage the product. You can't put entertainment above information. And while you sensed there was a joke being told, the audience never felt like they weren't in on the joke."

Indeed, Olbermann, Patrick, Craig Kilborn and Chris Berman brought everyone in on the joke, at least at one level. It is difficult to engage in any conversation about sports today without hearing a ``SportsCenter" tagline. Berman's penchant for conferring nicknames upon players solely for the sheer fun of the wordplay (calling former Minnesota center fielder Kirby Puckett ``Kirby Puckett and the Union Gap," for example), and his dead-on parody of bombastic local sportscasting paved the way for Olbermann's much subtler observations. His catch-phrases have made him a household name--there is even an Internet site for them called The SportsCenter Altar (www.geocities.com.TelevisionCity/2154).

O LBERMANN SAYS THAT as a boy he believed that someday he could be both a TV sportscaster and newscaster. In the suburban New York enclave of Hastings-On-Hudson, Olbermann spent most of his school years two classes ahead of kids his own age. The self-described ``pain-in-the-ass, precocious child" was also a news junkie. In 1973, at the age of 14, Olbermann says his days were apt to revolve around watching the Senate Watergate hearings, listening to Bob & Ray and going to New York Yankee games.

``Nothing is more vivid for me than remembering how the old news broadcasts opened up, with all of those names of the correspondents and where they were reporting from. The idea of literally spanning the globe gave me chills."

At the Hackley School in Tarrytown, New York, he worked with Chris Berman on the school yearbook. In 1977, after his sophomore year at Cornell University, Olbermann, then the 18-year-old manager of the school's radio station, had what he calls a ``milestone moment." After an evening of ripping, arranging and reading stories from the UPI wire, Olbermann compared notes with the newscaster for a competing nearby station. Story for story, their programs were the same.

``I realized that just not having a lisp was not going to make me successful in this business," he says. ``I damn well better have something more to offer. If it's been done already, I'd rather not do it."

This theme and the natural progression of professionals in broadcasting explains why Olbermann's resum* is long. In his first four years out of college he worked for UPI Radio, RKO Radio and WNEW-AM in New York. During that time, CNN approached Olbermann about a sports reporting assignment. Like ESPN at the time, CNN was still trying to find formats it was comfortable with and was willing to take a chance on someone like Olbermann, who had never done television before, says Phil Griffin, his first producer at CNN.

``He was great on radio, but he was even better on televisionÉ," Griffin says. ``From the beginning, he wrote to the picturesÉ. He's made for television."

When Griffin reviewed video of the stories he worked on with Olbermann at CNN, he was astonished at how mature Olbermann's wry persona was. ``When we did a story," Griffin says, ``it wasn't the obvious story. I think people are scared to break the mold. He isn't afraid to because he's so damn smart."

 After CNN Olbermann worked sports at television stations in Boston and Los Angeles. He moved to ESPN to be a ``SportsCenter" anchor and also help launch ESPN Sports Radio.

What attracted MSNBC to Olbermann was that he was seen as a journalist as well as a personality. In what was undoubtedly his proudest moment in broadcasting, Olbermann and Patrick devoted most of ``SportsCenter" to Mickey Mantle on the day of his death. For someone known to keep sports figures at a distance, Olbermann was suddenly confronted with preparing a eulogy for a childhood idol, Patrick says.

``We did the show straight ahead, with no gimmicks, nothing," Patrick says. ``It was a show that a program like `Nightline' would have been proud of. I don't think we even said a word to one another afterward."

I N THE END, THERE WASN'T ENOUGH at ``SportsCenter" to make Olbermann feel he was something other than a guy doing a string of sports-related jokes. Much as Olbermann insists he did everything in his power to stay at ESPN, Patrick and Ley agree that he made it easy for ESPN to cut him loose.

In a series of clashes during 18 months of contract negotiations, the network suspended Olbermann for two weeks, with pay, for what it said was an unauthorized appearance on Kilborn's ``The Daily Show." During Kilborn's well-known ``five questions" segment following the promotion of ``The Big Show," the book Olbermann and Patrick wrote about their program, Olbermann disparaged Bristol, Connecticut, as the ``most Godforsaken place in the East."

In addition to the misunderstanding over whether his appearance was permitted, Olbermann says ESPN also scolded him for doing voiceovers for public service commercials for Major League Baseball's effort to stamp out chewing tobacco. ``If you tell me I can't do something like that for charity, C-H-A-R-I-T-Y, you're damned right I'm going to be difficult. In that context, not only am I difficult, but I'm proud to be difficult."

Olbermann's last show with Patrick, on June 29, was an awkward affair with Olbermann taking a few seconds to thank colleagues and closing with what looked like a staged handshake. Patrick says he regrets the network did not allow for a tribute. ``I wasn't pleased with how it ended," Patrick says.

TV critics and sports columnists lamented Olbermann's departure, a tribute to the respect he commands outside of television. Inside, he was welcomed warmly by NBC. ``Keith is widely considered to be one of the great talents in sports television, and we know that he will bring the same unique insight and perspective to covering news and current events," said NBC News President Andrew Lack.

As for his new show, executive producer Griffin says, ``I'm telling you, it's going to be a gas." A gas, perhaps, but by no means a sure thing. For whatever Olbermann contributed to ESPN, it was a broadcasting behemoth long before he got there and has hardly collapsed since he left. But MSNBC, a joint venture of NBC and Microsoft, is a generation younger, with a small audience and large expectations.

Olbermann and the network are not sure what form his new show will take. For the record, Griffin will say only that it is in development. He concedes that for Olbermann to succeed, ``Keith's bosses will have to be as creative as he is."

For Olbermann, who prefers life out on the edges, it is an opportunity to give viewers context for the news, to remind everyone that even the most sensational story is forgotten in the rush to the next sensation. Olbermann, who also talked to Court TV, had an opportunity to make more money doing a sports highlight show for Fox. Publicly, at least, the decision was easy.

``I'd love to revolutionize the news business," he says, ``but if I can, on occasion, replace the JonBenet Ramsey story with the one on quantum mechanics, and we'll do that sometimes, well, then that's the best I can do."