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Can Current TV Establish Itself as a Real Competitor in Political Broadcast--With or Without Keith Olbermann?

Current TV made a rapid switch to progressive political programming--and some big-name talent with big-time personalities that might conflict with what the network wants.
 
 
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You would be forgiven if you thought, at first, that the new incarnation of Current TV looks a lot like the old version of MSNBC. After six years as a nonpartisan news network – albeit one co-founded by former Democratic vice president Al Gore – Current launched its transition to a 24/7 channel with an unabashedly liberal vantage point just in time for Election 2012. And it did so with two headliners plucked straight from MSNBC, the cable channel specializing in progressive political commentary.

  But while there is barely a degree of separation, Current’s chief executive officer and co-founder Joel Hyatt says that what the network offers is very distinct from MSNBC – or anyone else, for that matter. While Fox News is “infotainment” and CNN is “limited by their legacy,” Hyatt calls MSNBC “a confused brand.”

 

“It’s liberal at night, conservative in the morning, and in the middle it’s nothing at all because it needs to fit in under its NBC parent,” Hyatt told AlterNet. “And even its liberal evenings are inauthentic. We [at Current TV] are liberal because it’s what we do and how we live our lives.”

Hyatt added: “We are a fact-based network that is interested in solutions to problems, not just screaming and hollering about them. We think there’s a huge audience that’s out there that wants that as well.”

Keith Olbermann defected from MSNBC to Current in 2011. He walked into a reported $10 million salary and equity stake in exchange for his “ Countdown” show, but nearly backed out five months later as the network endured an uncomfortably public tussle with its marquee star. This month, after a brief leave for bronchitis, Olbermann returned to “Countdown” with a black backdrop replacing the set he had reportedly complained about.

On Current, “Countdown” continues Olbermann’s interviews, fast-paced commentary, and his “Worst Persons in the World” segment. (Blogger Andrew Breitbart won the dubious honor last Monday – not for the first time.) With the shift to Current, Olbermann welcomed an entirely new set of regular contributors, including Matt Taibbi, a journalist for Rolling Stone; Kate Sheppard, an environmental journalist for Mother Jones; author Jeremy Scahill, and activist and comedian Maysoon Zayid.

When “Countdown” debuted on Current last June, the network finished the week ahead of CNN with viewers aged 25-54 in the 8pm time-slot, even though Current is in 40 percent fewer homes than CNN. This was quite a turn for Current, which averaged 30,000 viewers in primetime in the pre-“Countdown” quarter of 2011. Last September, the show hit 310,000 total viewers for a Tuesday night show where Olbermann interviewed former U.S. diplomat Joe Wilson about former vice president Dick Cheney’s memoir. This is recognition of Olbermann’s reputation as a brilliant and creative host who gets to heart of key issues, according to Hyatt.

“Keith Olbermann was the only journalist in America who saw the significance in the Occupy movement,” Hyatt said. “He covered it so well and so consistently that he shamed the mainstream media into taking notice.”  

While “Countdown” is still not a leader in its time-slot, it remains Current’s biggest name, making the internal wrangling with Olbermann all the more significant. Olbermann, after all, has a history of burning bridges. He first came to MSNBC from ESPN in 1997, and then again in 2003 after a stint with Fox Sports. After his acrimonious departure from MSNBC, Olbermann’s trademark talents and temper are on Current’s docket, and, while “Countdown” endures, Olbermann doesn't appear to feel any particular kindness to the network that gave it a new home: it’s reported that he ignores emails from the West Coast executives, complains about his car service, and is irritated with the network’s low-budget production. (Hence, the black background that debuted on the show recently.) Current seems to be still trying to figure out how to navigate the implications of this. When it put out a full-page New York Times ad ahead of the Florida primary coverage, “Countdown” was the show promoted in the largest type. Hyatt said that Current is particularly proud of “Countdown” as representing the network’s new direction. But in the New York Times ad, Current’s two other political hosts are pictured. Olbermann is nowhere to be seen.