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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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The New York Times has pointed out that on the night of the Iowa caucuses – when Keith Olbermann was absent -- Current’s average viewer was 36 years old, while CNN’s was 56, Fox News’ was 63, and MSNBC’s was 65. For whatever worth is measured by Twitter followers, Current easily bests MSNBC: nearly 719,000 people follow @current, while @msnbc has just over 178,000 followers. (To be fair, @maddow, the Twitter account of MSNBC host Rachel Maddow, alone has well over two million followers. Olbermann, Cenk, and Granholm combined have about 400,000.) It has yet to be seen, though, whether Current’s business independence will translate into the kind of rigorous, interesting, and meaningful broadcast that cannot be found elsewhere, MSNBC included.

Even as Current looks to become what Hyatt calls “the anti-Fox,” no corporation holds a majority stake in it. So which network has the advantage? Certainly MSNBC has the benefit of stability and reach, thanks to its corporate host. Hyatt himself acknowledges that MSNBC is supported by its 15-year history, its NBC parent, and its overall brand recognition. While Current is available on cable and satellite television in 60 million U.S. households (and an additional 11 million internationally), more than 78 million U.S. households can tune into MSNBC’s channel. Another 20 million view MSNBC online.

Current is still struggling to hold onto the audiences it has: just last month, BSkyB, a major satellite broadcaster in the UK partly owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation, decided to cut the channel from its subscription line-up because of low ratings. When Sky Italia – a News Corp. broadcaster in Italy -- eliminated Current from its offerings last year, Al Gore told The Guardian that he believed it was a politically motivated decision made in the wake of Olbermann’s hiring. He also foresaw that News Corp., which was then in the process of buying BSkyB, would threaten the availability of Current TV in Britain. “… if anybody believes that [News Corp] will remain hands off if there are diverse opinions that do not agree with its ideological agenda then they are fools. This is proof positive of their abuse of power," Gore said.

But while it fights to make the channel available to viewers, Current can – and does -- amplify the appeal of its independence. The Occupy movement that “Countdown” was one of the earliest to cover is shining a light on the consequences of corporate cronyism just as Current promotes its newly liberal stance in programming: independent progressive television that is sure to resonate with its target audience.

As part of the swift and radical turnaround from its nonpartisan roots, Current went for the jugular. It brought on hosts that already had outsized reputations, whether from their MSNBC and online platforms or, in Granholm’s case, a host who can brag of significant political experience. Hyatt heralds Granholm’s real-world background as turning the tables on the political pundit formula. “She’s lived it,” he said, noting that she wasn’t only a governor, but also an attorney general. “It’s not all opinions in her case … I believe she’s going to be a TV star, but it’s going to be because of her experience. She knows what questions to ask. She’s not just an interviewer; she can have a conversation because she’s been there.”

MSNBC, on the other hand, cultivates hosts from the ground up. Melissa Harris-Perry, a Tulane University professor and columnist for The Nation, is at the helm of her new show after having spent years as a featured contributor and guest host on “The Rachel Maddow Show”. Likewise, Chris Hayes was a frequent contributor and guest host on Maddow’s show, as well as an editor for The Nation, before being given his shot in the spotlight last August with the weekend opinion show, “ Up with Chris Hayes.” Maddow herself found spectacular success when she was brought to MSNBC for her first turn in television after hosting a syndicated Air America radio show. She used to be a guest-host on “Countdown” in its MSNBC days, filling in for Keith Olbermann.