Former MSNBC host Keith Olbermann announced this morning that, as of late spring, he will launch a new primetime show and become Chief News Officer at Current TV.
[Pause to allow readers to find Current TV in their digital-cable/satellite channel guides.]
On a conference call with Current founders former Vice President Al Gore and Joel Hyatt, Olbermann said that his new show, much like Countdown at MSNBC, would focus on “calling people out” and offering his take on the news—”an improved and we hope amplified and stronger version” of the show he left abruptly after working out a severance agreement with MSNBC last month. Gore and Hyatt said that the nonfiction network—much hyped at its launch, little-watched since—welcomed the chance to give Olbermann a voice; Olbermann, meanwhile, said that working for (and helping to run) a much smaller network would grant him an independence missing in corporate-owned media.
In other words, Current and Olbermann each have something the other needs. Or at least they hope they do.
Olbermann had a Conan O’Brien problem. He had a name and a following, but–despite the thousand-channel universe–there were only a few existing platforms for what he did, and they were all full. Once Fox washed out as an opportunity for O’Brien, the likes of TBS were all that was left on TV. Likewise, while it may seem like we have far more cable news talk shows than we need, there are three 24-hour channels (four with HLN), and the ones who hadn’t already fired him had full primetimes.
So Olbermann made a move like Conan, and maybe even analogous to Oprah Winfrey: not jumping to a big network, but a small one that could, to some extent, become his own vehicle. If this move works out (and if the others do), this could augur an era in which more cable channels, especially smaller ones, essentially become virtual brand extensions of single celebrity talents.
In an executive role, Olbermann could help reshape Current’s lineup with other compatible (and maybe like-minded) hosts, just as he helped to get Rachel Maddow started at MSNBC. At the conference, Current’s team stressed that Olbermann was instrumental in branding ESPN and MSNBC (the former one maybe more of a stretch, as many hands made SportsCenter). And while we don’t know yet what Olbermann will do, his brand pretty much immediately subsumes Current’s—and in a way even Gore’s, since the Vice President has not been an on-air regular at the network.
Is it the right move for Olbermann? Uh, sure. Why not? What else was he going to do? The upside is, he gets to make a network in his own image, one that could become a player in the national media and political conversation. The downside—well, it’s not like the bar for ratings success is so high at Current to begin with. (Current averages 23,000 viewers in prime time. Even when getting beat out by Fox News, Olbermann had that many viewers under his couch cushions.) There are so many ways this story could go: he could be Conan at TBS, or Howard Stern on satellite—or Dan Rather on HDNet. But almost by default he at least improves the channel’s ratings, and he can always move on.
Does the news transform Current instantly into a major cable channel? No, but it does transform Current into a minor cable channel, which is an improvement. While it got a lot of attention when Al Gore founded the idealistic, user-generated-news-oriented channel in 2005, its ratings and profile since have been infinitesimal. There was much talk that Gore might try to make Current a political-news channel—a TV Air America or a liberal answer to Fox News. Instead, it was an earnest, quirky video and documentary channel, with a mix of investigative world reporting, user-made videos and today, hunting-dining show Kill It, Cook It, Eat It. It was well-intended, sometimes interesting, rarely noticed.
Now it will be a channel that gets talked about, for a while anyway, though Olbermann is not guaranteed to make it into a top-, or even mid-, tier cable channel (any more than Don Imus did when he simulcasted on RFD network). If this does work, it will be because Olbermann does what Gore could not, or would not, do then: become intensely, personally involved and give the channel a distinct point of view and a celebrity stamp.
On the conference call, Gore sidestepped a question about whether Olbermann’s hire (he also gets an equity stake on top of his managerial title) will turn Current into a “liberal” network: “I find myself in substantial agreement with the views that I’ve heard Keith Olbermann express, and I think the conversation of democracy in the US benefits greatly from having Keith heard.”
We did get clarity on whether Olbermann will be allowed to donate to political candidates, which got him in trouble at MSNBC: yes—”Freedom of speech includes the ability to donate to candidates of your choice,” Gore said—but he’ll also need to disclose. (It helps that Olbermann will essentially be his own boss.)
But if Current is to develop a revitalized media brand, whatever it is, it will need to expand the rest of its programming to complement its new star. And Olbermann, as the news chief, will need to rebuild a network more literally than he did at MSNBC. What may matter more to the success of this arrangement is not whether it brings fans the same old Keith Olbermann, but how effectively it creates a brand-new Current TV.