On Thursday, NBC’s news division staged an elaborate presentation for advertisers, seeking to sell commercial time in NBC’s news programs over the next year. All the members of MSNBC’s prime-time lineup spoke at the lunch with one exception: Keith Olbermann, the network’s biggest star.
For the last several weeks, Mr. Olbermann and the network have been in negotiations to end his successful run on MSNBC, according to executives involved in the talks who requested anonymity because the talks were confidential. The deal was completed on Friday, and Mr. Olbermann made the announcement on his final “Countdown” hours later.
Friday’s separation agreement between MSNBC and Mr. Olbermann includes restrictions on when he can next lead a television show and when he can give interviews about the decision to end his association with the news channel.
The executives involved in the discussions confirmed that the deal carries limitations for Mr. Olbermann in terms of when he can next work on television, though he will be able to take a job in radio or on any forum on the Internet. The deal also prohibits the host from commenting publicly on the deal, the executives confirmed.
Mr. Olbermann did not respond to requests for comment Friday or Saturday. None of the executives who discussed the deal would reveal the exact length of the restrictions.
The decision was completed a year to the day from the last time NBC decided to end a relationship with an on-air star: Conan O’Brien. Mr. O’Brien’s settlement had similar restrictions.
Many of Mr. Olbermann’s fans responded to the decision by accusing Comcast, the incoming owner of NBC Universal, of forcing him out for political reasons. Several of Comcast’s top executives have been financial supporters of Republicans; Mr. Olbermann is largely credited with establishing MSNBC’s liberal voice.
Comcast issued an official statement Friday denying any involvement in the decision, saying it had no operational control of the company yet, and adding: “We pledged from the day the deal was announced that we would not interfere with NBC Universal’s news operations. We have not and we will not.”
But the company is still drawing criticism for the move. Marvin Ammori, a law professor at the University of Nebraska, said in an e-mail Friday, “Keith Olbermann’s announcement tonight, the very same week that the government blessed the Comcast-NBC merger, raises serious concern for anyone who cares about free speech. Comcast proved expert in shaking down the government to approve its merger. Comcast’s shakedown of NBC has just begun.” Professor Ammori is a former adviser to the nonprofit group Free Press, which opposed the Comcast-NBC deal.
Months before Comcast was expected to gain control of NBC Universal, Comcast officials were worried about the perception that they might interfere with MSNBC for political reasons.
One executive, who asked not to be identified because Comcast had instructed employees not speak about the situation, said the company dreaded the prospect of being blamed if Mr. Olbermann were to quit soon after the takeover.
Mr. Olbermann had butted heads with his superiors long before the Comcast deal, including Phil Griffin, the top MSNBC executive. According to several senior network executives, NBC’s management had been close to firing Mr. Olbermann before, most recently in November after he revealed that he had made donations to several Democratic candidates in 2010 — one of them, coincidentally, was Representative Gabrielle Giffords, who has been the subject of many of his recent shows after being shot in an assassination attempt.
Mr. Griffin said the donations had violated NBC News standards. Mr. Olbermann was suspended.