When the abrasive Keith Olbermann left ESPN for good in 1997, he not only burned bridges on the way out. He blew them up.
So it came as a shock Wednesday when the network announced that the former “SportsCenter” anchor was back in the fold as host of a one-hour, late-night topical show on ESPN2, beginning Aug. 26.
“Olbermann,” will generally air at 10 p.m. weeknights, depending on live event coverage on the channel. Based in New York City, the show will combine commentary, interviews, highlights and panel discussions.
One thing it won't have is political talk from Olbermann, whose left-wing views turned him into a polarizing figure in stints on MSNBC and Current TV. The last job ended with Current pulling the plug on him and Olbermann reaching an out-of-court settlement for breach of contract.
“If I wanted to go and do politics, I'd still be doing politics,” Olbermann said in a conference call Wednesday. “This clearly is something else.”
Olbermann, 54, made his name with his catchphrases and sarcastic tone as a “SportsCenter” anchor from 1992-97. The stint ended amid harsh words and clashes with management over his right to do work outside the network.
“I know that we can't go back and undo everything that happened 20 years ago in those environs,” Olbermann said. “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.”
Former ESPN sportscaster Doug Gottlieb, who co-hosts “Lead Off” at 11 p.m. weeknights on the CBS Sports Network, said he was glad to see Olbermann get another shot at ESPN.
“I love that this era in TV has talented people getting new opportunities and I would also say that this is likely the last chance for Keith Olbermann to be fairly mainstream and not blow it,” Gottlieb said in an email. “He is brilliant, though he has been troubled by senseless fights with his bosses and other media members. I'm guessing he will be witty, smart and snarky and I only fear that he talks way too much baseball, which is passe for younger viewers.”
ESPN president John Skipper said he talked with several employees who had worked with Olbermann before deciding to let him come back.
“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.”
It's no coincidence the debut of “Olbermann” will come shortly after the launch of Fox Sports 1 network on Aug. 17. By offering two different shows, “Olbermann” and “SportsCenter,” at the same time, ESPN will attempt to keep viewers from moving to Fox Sports 1's late night sports show.
ESPN management is allowing Olbermann to work in his other sports assignment as studio host of postseason baseball coverage on TBS.