Olbermann Broadcasting Empire v. Current TV, LLC – A Three-Part Series Uncovering the Legal Battle Between Two Media Titans
By Fernando M. Pinguelo and Timothy Cedrone
Part III: Is the End Close at Hand?
Part I of this three-part series explored the history of the relationship between Keith Olbermann and Current TV, a television station owned by Current Media (collectively, “Current”). That relationship began in 2011, when Keith Olbermann joined Current TV as its Chief News Officer, and ended unceremoniously in March 2012, when Current notified Olbermann that it was terminating his contract. About a week later, Olbermann sued Current TV for breach of contract, as detailed in Part I of this series. Part II examined Current’s responses to Olbermann’s claims, including Current’s Answer and Cross-Complaint requesting monetary damages and other relief from the Court. So where do the parties stand now, and where are they going? Read on for answers to those questions.
At first, Olbermann’s case progressed in much the same way that most employment cases progress. The parties filed their initial pleadings with the court and then began the discovery process. Olbermann’s attorneys sent notices to Current seeking to take the depositions of various Current officers, including Al Gore. The court entered case management orders, with a final status conference in the case scheduled for May 16, 2013. There is even a trial date set: May 28, 2013, with an estimated duration of five to seven days, according to the California Superior Court, Los Angeles County, website. All these things are fairly typical for an employment dispute, but one recent event has the potential to change everything between now and May. As reported by multiple outlets in early January 2013, the Qatari-based broadcaster Al-Jazeera acquired Current TV in a deal estimated to be in the hundreds of millions of dollars.
Given the recency of the transaction, the impact of the purchase on Olbermann’s lawsuit remains to be seen. Nonetheless, a few possibilities may emerge. First, the parties could continue the present course and head towards trial just after Memorial Day. Going to trial carries significant risk for both parties. Specifically, either side could lose. And based on the allegations raised by Olbermann in his Complaint and by Current in its Cross-Complaint, a loss by either party after a jury trial could amount to a verdict totaling tens of millions of dollars. The upside, of course, is that either side could win tens of millions of dollars if the jury rules in their favor. A jury could also pick the middle ground. It could find that both parties were at fault, or that neither was at fault, and award no damages to either side.
A couple of months ago, a jury trial seemed to be where this case was heading. After all, each party had the financial resources to wage a war of words against the other. Had Al-Jazeera not entered the picture, a jury trial appeared inevitable. However, Al-Jazeera (and not Current, Al Gore, Joel Hyatt, etc.) is now calling the shots, and it may opt to pursue another route: settlement. While this was always a road the parties might have traveled, the fact is that now, Al-Jazeera might want to sever all ties with Current once and for all. It could settle the case as a way to tie up loose ends from Current and move forward with bringing Al-Jazeera into American households. However, settlement presents one primary drawback for Al-Jazeera: it will cost a significant amount of money to settle the case. Considering that Olbermann’s Complaint estimated his damages to be $50 million to $70 million, it is highly unlikely he will accept anything less than tens of millions of dollars to dismiss his claims. A related complication for Al-Jazeera is that Olbermann’s attorneys will certainly know that the company might be interested in settling the case. This could give Olbermann some added leverage to drive up the settlement price. In the end, it will cost Al-Jazeera a significant sum of money to settle the case if it chooses to do so.
Although predicting the future can be tricky business, the more likely outcome here is that Al-Jazeera and Olbermann will settle for a number that will not be revealed to the public. Both parties would then walk away from the case somewhat satisfied: Olbermann gets some money and a little redemption, while Al-Jazeera gets the benefit of tying up the remaining loose ends from Current. Al-Jazeera’s purchase of Current TV is a prime example of how surprises often arise during litigation. Just as Olbermann’s attorneys might try to use the Al-Jazeera purchase as leverage in settlement negotiations, using surprises to one’s advantage can be a difference maker in reaching a satisfactory resolution to a case. And if there are any more surprises in the Olbermann case, we’ll be here to keep you informed.
This article’s primary purpose is to educate and inform readers and provide them with a general overview of the topics discussed. The information it contains should not be construed as providing legal advice and should not be relied on for that purpose. If you have specific legal questions, the authors suggest seeking the advice of a qualified attorney.
Fernando M. Pinguelo, a Partner at Norris, McLaughlin & Marcus, P.A,. and Chair of its Entertainment Law and Cyber Security & Data Protection groups, is a trial lawyer who devotes his practice to complex business lawsuits and employment matters. Fernando represents TV news anchors, reporters, meteorologists, and sports casters, including Emmy Award-winning talent, concerning employment and agency agreements, contract disputes, and cyber security/privacy issues concerning talent’s Internet reputation. His representative clients include on-air talent who broadcast out of local and affiliate TV stations across the U.S., including in Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, and Philadelphia markets. To learn more about Fernando, visit www.NYLocalLaw.com or email him at info@NYLocalLaw.com. To receive timely articles about how technology impacts lawsuits, subscribeto Fernando’s ABA Journal award-winning blogs, eLessons Learned – Where Law, Technology & Human Error Collide ® and eWhite House Watch – Where Law, Technology & Politics Collide ® (www.eWHWblog.com)
Timothy D. Cedroneis an associate with the law firm of Apruzzese, McDermott, Mastro & Murphy, P.C., where his practice focuses on all areas of labor and employment law. Tim is the Vice Chair of the Entertainment, Arts & Sports Law Section of the New Jersey State Bar Association, as well as an Executive Committee member of the Labor & Employment Law Section. Tim is also an Adjunct Professor at Seton Hall University, where he teaches Sports Law. He has authored or co-authored three full-length, published law review articles in the areas of sports and entertainment law, and he previously was a law clerk for the National Football League and New Jersey Sports & Exposition Authority. He is admitted to practice in New York and New Jersey.
Al Gore Set to Be Deposed in Keith Olbermann’s Current TV Mess, E! Online, July 10, 2012, http://www.eonline.com/news/328938/al-gore-set-to-be-deposed-in-keith-olbermann-s-current-tv-mess.
Keith Hagey & John Jannarone, Al-Jazeera to Buy Current TV, Wall Street Journal, Jan. 3, 2012, http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424127887324374004578218043102095584.html.