Can Keith Fly Solo? This Week, Olbermann Gets His Own Big Show

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This week, Olbermann gets his own big show

EVER THE WISE GUY, KEITH olbermann will tell you he's really taken his new job with all-news MSNBC to be closer to the bright lights of the big city. Up until last June, he may have reigned as the nation's smartest, sassiest sportscaster around, as coanchor of ESPN's "Sportscenter." But he had to do it in the boonies of Bristol, Conn., ESPN's world headquarters. "From the window of my house," Olbermann recalls with mock wistfulness, "I could look out on the whole Farmington Valley. And there on the horizon was Interstate 84, with all the taillights blending into one." Then he'll mention the cows and horses he counted as neighbors, along with the place being "ideal" for raising kids and "cleaning a swimming pool." Hasta la vista, Nutmeg State!

Today the 38-year-old Olbermann sits high above midtown Manhattan in his new, minion-dollar apartment, content amid his 35,000 baseball trading cards and seats from such relics as the Montreal Forum and Ebbets Field. To the south there's a view of the Statue of Liberty, to the north a view all the way up the Hudson, in the elevator Al Pacino and Goldie Hawn! On the street are restaurants galore and always a cab. Olbermann is single, doesn't drive and dislikes farm animals--life is good. Plus his $350,000 salary is doubling.

Yet Olbermann's departure from "Sportscenter," ESPN's flagship program, is hardly an obvious career move. This Wednesday he becomes America's newest talk-show host. "The Big Show With Keith Olbermann (8 to 9 p.m. Monday to Friday) is MSNBC's answer to Larry King on CNN--a newsdriven discussion program that relies on the host's star power. Mostly, there will be traditional interviews and a few gags. (While he'll also do occasional work for NBC Sports--which has an opening as of last Thursday--he vows his show will go out of its way to avoid sports.)

Olbermann has the tools. He's glib, quick and, by TV standards, deep: he's well versed in the careers of his heroes, Churchill, Laurel and Hardy. His voice is strong: the baritone is sweet and full of range. His writing can be lovely: his tributes to Mickey Mantle and Curt Flood were poetry. But apart from the issue of MSNBC's obscurity, the challenge for Olbermann will be flying solo. At "Sportscenter"--a scores-and-highlight s show--he and straight man Dan Patrick bounced their one-liners, puns and movie references off great videotape. …