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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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Cenk Uygur, meanwhile, brought his popular news show, “ The Young Turks,” to Current after a spending a few years as an MSNBC contributor and substitute anchor. Last year, he had a short stint as an “MSNBC Live” anchor in the wake of Olbermann’s departure, but left the channel for Current after a dispute over a time slot change--and Uygur said that followed the network telling him to “tone it down” on his show, and that he was too combative against “those in power." While television ratings are “growing,” according to Hyatt, “no news program on television has a younger audience” than “The Young Turks.” Perhaps a premonition of what was to come for him both politically and professionally, the 2000 election was the first time Uygur, a former Republican, voted Democrat: he cast his ballot for Gore.

Current is also looking to develop a liberal counterpart to MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” as well as a Sunday morning talk show, a la “Meet the Press”; indeed, Hyatt said that it intends to “build out an entire 24/7 schedule” over time, and that announcements are expected about this in the coming weeks and months. Current has also brought on Jennifer Granholm, the former Democratic governor of Michigan, to host “The War Room,” an hour-long broadcast specializing in electoral politics that airs on weeknights. And with a nod to its former niche in investigative broadcast, Current is keeping “ Vanguard” on its platform; the Peabody Award-winning documentary series may be most well known for its affiliation with Laura Ling and Euna Lee, who were imprisoned in North Korea while on assignment.

But by and large, Current is banking its future by directly challenging the liberal pundit platform cultivated by MSNBC. Is it going to work – with or without Keith Olbermann? Will Current TV finally find a solid primetime viewership, and if it does, how does that impact MSNBC?

The answer to that is found less in the obvious overlap of Current and MSNBC programming, and more in the distinctions.

Shortly before “The War Room” debuted, Granholm made a subtle but pointed statement about the fundamental difference between Current and MSNBC. In a video segment where she spoke about her shift from serving as governor to hosting a cable show, Granholm said that Current was the network for her “because it is an independent progressive voice.”

“There is no corporate sponsor dictating which way you go or who you’ve got to have on, and as a former governor I’m kind of looking forward to being independent in terms of not having somebody pull the marionette strings,” she said.

Indeed, Current does not have a corporate owner, while MSNBC is the creation of  multiple large ones. MSNBC was founded in 1996 as a partnership between Microsoft and General Electric’s NBC division; today, that division, known as NBCUniversal, has the majority stake in the network, while Microsoft is no longer involved. Meanwhile, Current is the result of the partnership between Gore and Joel Hyatt, a lawyer who is now the network’s CEO. Its funding sources are unclear: while Current has toyed with the prospect of an IPO, its finances are not yet publicly available. CNN Money has reported that while Current was operating at a steep loss throughout its early years, a spokesperson for the network contends that it is now profitable and it believes itself to be the fastest growing cable network in history.

“The major difference is all three of [the major cable networks] has an average [viewer] age in the sixties,” Hyatt said. “We’re doing cable news differently. Certainly our ratings are still small, but a much larger percentage of it is from the younger demographic … We want to have an impact on democracy. So we need to talk to the generation that’s still out there making a difference and making decisions.”