That 2007 interview from the Late Show with David Letterman outlines how improbable the return of Keith Olbermann to ESPN is. It still seems like a dream that Olbermann will host a late night show on ESPN2 beginning on August 26.
Shift the interview to 5:28 and to witness the following exchange:
Letterman: "What is it about you? You seem to burn bridges wherever you you leave. Do I have that right or not?"
Olbermann: " I don't burn bridges, I burn rivers."
Letterman: "I see."
Olbermann: "You burn a bridge, you can possibly build a new bridge. When there's no river anymore, that's a lot of trouble. I just try to run the place …"
Having left the network amid plenty of acrimony in 1997 and banned from the Bristol, CT campus despite being brought back to do a radio show with Dan Patrick in 2005, this is like the prodigal son returning to the roost. In this case, Olbermann took 16 years to make his official return to the Mothership and make up.
When it was reported by the New York Times back March that Olbermann had met with ESPN President John Skipper, it still seemed that there was a brick wall in front of K.O. that would make his return to Bristol impossible. Skipper told James Andrew Miller, "… there was no real appropriate place for Keith to come back, nor did I feel I was prepared to bring him back."
And when Olbermann signed with Turner Sports to host the MLB Playoffs last month, it appeared that his comeback to sports would be on TBS and not with ESPN.
But when news began surfacing that ESPN could indeed bring Olby back, there still seemed that underlying potential for this to blow up. There are people in Bristol who still harbor hostillity towards him.
In his conference call announcing his surprising return, Keithy acknowledged that he still has to make amends with many of the rank and file at the Worldwide Leader. And the number of people to whom he has to apologize can fill Yankee Stadium. But if the reaction of some at ESPN is any indication, he could be welcomed back with open arms.
The Big Lead reports that Olbermann could set foot on the Bristol campus by hosting SportsCenter a week before his show premieres on ESPN2. To even have that become reality is beyond belief. When ESPN celebrated its 25th Anniversary, Olbermann was notably absent while alumni like Greg Gumbel, Craig Kilborn and others made special guest appearances on SportsCenter.
Yes, Olbermann has had a chequered past with employers since leaving ESPN in 1997. And there are some in the TV industry who are waiting for another patented blowup as Deadline's Nikki Finke reports, but with Olbermann saying he doesn't want how his relationship with ESPN ended to be in his obituary, he seems to realize that this could be his last chance for a long-term television gig.
There's no doubt that he's talented and one of the smarter people on television, but there's the baggage that has accompanied Olbermann throughout his career and has made him a target. Some will watch his new ESPN2 show for the train wreck potential, but for now, Olbermann is contrite and saying all the right things. Let's see in a year if the new Olbermann can stay the course.