NEW YORK – Keith Olbermann, the highest-rated host of MSNBC, has quit the cable news network. In an abrupt announcement on the air Friday night, he said he was leaving "Countdown with Keith Olbermann" immediately.
The flamboyant anchor, who was the leading and possibly most strident symbol of MSNBC's liberal leanings, settled his contract late this week and agreed to step down. His relationship with NBC's corporate management had been troubled for some time, but news of his departure came as a surprise to most pundits and MSNBC insiders. Click play to watch video:
As he closed his show Friday night, Olbermann said he would end his show immediately. He offered no explanation, and a statement from MSNBC did not clarify the circumstances behind his departure.
"MSNBC and Keith Olbermann have ended their contract," the statement said. "The last broadcast of 'Countdown with Keith Olbermann' will be this evening. MSNBC thanks Keith for his integral role in MSNBC's success and we wish him well in future endeavors."
Olbermann, who has a sarcastic and acerbic style, had a four-year contract for an estimated $30 million, the New York Times reported Friday night. He hosted "Countdown" at 8 p.m. ET since 2003, and he was the key to MSNBC's fight to overcome the top-rated show on cable news in that time slot, "The O'Reilly Factor" with Bill O'Reilly on Fox News.
Olbermann challenged O'Reilly repeatedly, calling him the "worst person in the world."
O'Reilly's program left Olbermann's in the dust, nearly doubling "Countdown's" ratings. "The O'Reilly Factor" consistently ranks No. 1 on cable news. But Olbermann's program did lead MSNBC's climb to the second-ranked news channel on cable television, passing the onetime leader, CNN.
Olbermann's support for liberal policies and causes became a hallmark of MSNBC. He helped boost the MSNBC liberal brand. Eventually his program was followed by a like-minded host, Rachel Maddow, who is the host of the 9 p.m. hour.
Olbermann was almost fired by NBC in November when he revealed he had contributed donations to Democratic candidates, including Rep. Gabrielle Giffords of Arizona, who was the target of an assassination attempt in Tucson on Jan. 8.
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