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

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.

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.”

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.

MSNBC’s “vertical” strategy ensures that it is developing hosts that fit into the overall vision and voice of the network, bringing cohesion to a channel that aims to “lean forward.” It also heightens the likelihood that its hosts will feel loyalty to the network that took a chance on them: it is noteworthy that Olbermann was an exception to the in-house development pattern. As he and Current struggle to find a balance in their working relationship, it remains to be seen how gladly the network executives will bear the burden in exchange for what Olbermann offers the network. In the meantime, by luring big-name hosts to its channel, Current is exciting the potential viewers it needs so much, while also making the network’s change in direction loud and clear. Olbermann, Uygur, and Granholm are the trumpets Current needs.

It really is a surprising move by Current to make the charismatic two-term governor of a struggling Midwest state the sole host of new show that stands alongside the established enterprises of “Countdown” and “The Young Turks.” While “The War Room” specializes in Election 2012, Granholm is elevating key stories that have a national resonance, but are approached with a Michigan perspective. Her discussion of the racist Superbowl ad by Pete Hoekstra, a U.S. Senate candidate from Michigan, included her admission of using similar “China will take our jobs” rhetoric in one of her own gubernatorial campaigns, for example. It was an effective strategy in a state that saw its unemployment rate hit 15% during the worst of the recession.

Similarly, “The War Room” also featured an interview with UAW president Bob King. He and Granholm discussed collective bargaining, right-to-work laws, and unemployment in a distinctly Michigan context. (Most networks rarely bring leaders of the labor movement on to speak.) King contended that Mitt Romney – a Michigan native, whose father once served as the state’s governor – cannot win the crucial state in this year’s primary because of his hostility to labor and union rights. Notoriously, Romney opposed the auto industry bailouts in a 2008 New York Times op-ed headlined as “Let Detroit Go Bankrupt.” As Romney’s campaign for president heated up last year, which included fundraising in Detroit, Granholm retorted with her own op-ed in Politico: “Let Mitt Romney Go Bankrupt.”

Granholm’s experience in a key swing state gives her an insight that simply is not replicable by any other pundit. While MSNBC often turns its attention to significant local stories around the nation, such as Indiana passing right-to-work legislation and the movement to recall Gov. Scott Walker in Wisconsin, it most often stands by a slate of national issues that are fixed in no particular location. There is nothing wrong with this: from the political battle for birth control to the national budget debate, these are important stories. But with “The War Room,” Current is deepening the focus on a region often eclipsed by national media, belying its significance. After leading Michigan during brutal years that foreshadowed the recession that would soon swallow the rest of the nation, and after navigating the auto industry bailouts now reverberating in the presidential election, Granholm brings her show inimitable expertise and an uncommon take on which stories matter.

This, then, is broadening the news that cable viewers encounter. Though progressive media has long been a marginal and underfunded enterprise, especially compared to the conservative movement in television and radio, there is, in fact, room for more than one network for liberal conversation. While it is apparent that Current TV is launching a pointed challenge to MSNBC with its new programming, the best outcome for viewers is if the two networks provoke one another to provide better and better broadcast, bringing forth the very greatest virtues in competition. We’ve yet to see if this will be the case. In the meantime, Current is wise to model itself on some of the best that MSNBC offers, including synchronistic hosts affirming a (more or less) shared set of values and commentary that pairs of-the-moment reporting with big-picture analysis. This should improve Current’s programming while also needling MSNBC, pushing it to stay on its game.

At the same time, though, Current should not be satisfied with being MSNBC-lite. As it champions its independence as a virtue, it should see that unaffiliated stance through by digging into the stories that other networks, nestled in an increasingly small number of media conglomerates, are staying away from. It also should amplify the Granholm strategy of developing hosts with diverse and deep background in politics – not just punditry -- and providing enough space for these hosts to take on stories where their insight is most needed. The hope is for Current to bring texture and depth to the progressive political conversation, rather then be satisfied with merely mimicking it.

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