"Tonight, Current TV host Keith Olbermann with the latest on the 2012 presidential race from commentator Al Gore…”
That’s a cable-TV promo that might well appeal to progressives. And it might well be heard, now that Olbermann, the top-rated MSNBC host who became a hero to liberals with his blistering commentaries on the high crimes and misdemeanors of the Bush-Cheney administration, has cut a deal with Current TV, the cable network co-founded by former Vice President Al Gore. Olbermann, whose decision last month to give up his top-rated MSNBC program shocked his fans, will host a nightly primetime program on Current TV and become the network’s "Chief News Officer." The Olbermann/Current TV agreement comes at a time when cable and digital media outlets are scrambling to position themselves before the 2012 presidential campaign—an essential branding moment for old and new media—begins in earnest.
At the most basic level, Olbermann move is a classic old-media leap from one network to another. But it also has political consequences, as Olbermann and Gore form a potentially potent combination with the base of liberal viewers that built MSNBC into a serious media presence and that could give Current TV a leg up.
This is vital for Current TV if it wants to be a player in the burgeoning arena of politically focused talk TV. Started five years ago as a youth-oriented network, Current TV has struggled to develop an identity since then. The ratings have, in industry parlance, been “disappointing.” Of late, however, Current TV has repositioned itself as a more traditional network, with popular entertainment programming—including This American Life and a delightfully twisted set of foodie programs such as Kill It. Cook It. Eat It and Cooking in the Danger Zone: Burma—and a goal of developing a significant public affairs programming.
But the network has needed a “star.”
That’s where Olbermann comes in. He is known entity with a following. His Countdown program on MSNBC attracted a million viewers each night. If just one-third of them were to follow Olbermann to Current TV—no easy task, as the network is fewer cable systems (it reaches about 60 million homes versus MSNBC’s 80 million) and is often on the digital tier of those networks (requiring new equipment)—it would give the upstart network a huge boost.
Is that possible? Consider this: Current TV has roughly 23,000 viewers in a given night. When Olbermann was briefly suspended by MSNBC last fall for making campaign donations to several Democratic candidates, more than 300,000 Americans signed a petition, circulated by which read: “Keith Olbermann made your network a success. If you want your viewers to keep tuning in to MSNBC, put Keith back on TV now!”
MSNBC put Olbermann back on TV immediately, only to have the host announce two months later than he and the network were parting company. Even after leaving MSNBC, Olbermann had 225,000 Twitter followers.
Now, Olbermann will be back on TV. If he can simply bring those 300,000 petition signers, or his Twitter followers to the new network, he would multiply its viewership by ten times.
Plus, he gives Current TV a new opportunity to exploit the connection with Gore—another hero of liberals, thanks to his own rebukes of Bush-Cheney administration abuses. If Current TV goes after the Olbermann fans and Gore enthusiasts, they can make a serious play for cable viewers at a time of great churn in political coverage and commentary.
So it is that an analysis of the Olbermann/Current TV arrangement by the industry-savvy folks at the TV Squad website, suggest that: "Current now has the opportunity– particularly if they piggyback more talent onto their Olbermann hiring — to compete with MSNBC for the loyalty of left-leaning cable news viewers."
Gore and Olbermann aren’t the only ones with a stake in that prospect. Comcast, the media giant that recently took change of NBC (and by extension MSNBC), owns a 10 percent stake in Current TV. That should make it easier for Olbermann to get around any contractual barriers to his making a move to another network before the conclusion of his MSNBC agreement. So the pieces are falling in place. Now, the question becomes: Is Olbermann a big enough personality to redefine not just one network, as he did during his eight years with MSNBC, but two?