Former MSNBC commentator Keith Olbermann has surprised many with the announcement of his new perch – Current TV.
Much like the general response to other media celebrity home-base moves – think Conan O’Brien’s hop from NBC to TBS and Dan Rather’s exit from CBS to HDNet – two common queries have been: “Where, exactly, is that?” and “Why?”
The channel, co-founded in 2005 by former presidential candidate Al Gore, is currently seen on a mix of outlets from Comcast to the Dish Satellite Network and officially airs in some 75 million homes around the globe. But actual viewership – as only very recently measured by Nielsen – is a tiny fraction of that, reportedly as low as 25,000.
This acquisition makes perfect sense for Current, says Robert Thompson, founder of the Bleier Center of Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University in New York. “Keith Olbermann has found a spot in the cultural zeitgeist,” he points out, a feat that puts him in a rare spot, wherever it may be. “What ‘South Park’ did for Comedy Central and what ‘Queer Eye for the Straight Guy’ did for Bravo,” he says, Mr. Olbermann can now do for Current TV.
Mr. Gore's comment in a Current press release Tuesday appeared consistent with that interpretation.
“Keith Olbermann is a gifted thinker, an amazing talent and a powerful communicator, and having him tap Current as his new home is exciting and very much in line with the core vision we founded this network on: To engage viewers with smart, provocative and timely programming,” said Gore, who is also Current chairman.
“His move there will force people to actually locate the channel on their 400-plus cable dial,” Mr. Thompson says. All it takes is one big hit or name to lift a channel into the flow of daily conversation, he says. With the simple buzz generated by Tuesday’s announcement and Wednesday’s speculation about what the new show will look like, “Current has already begun to achieve that.”
This is certainly true in the short term, sayst Gene Grabowski, chairman of the crisis and litigation practice at Levick Strategic Communication in Washington. However, he suggests that the needs of both sides may diverge over the longer term.
“Olbermann is known for being very strident,” Mr. Grabowski says, adding that this may not be the image Current TV will want over the long run. More important, however, Olbermann himself probably sees his future differently, he says. “This is a very small platform for Olbermann, and I’m not sure he has the power to elevate it to where he would like to be,” he says.
More likely, Grabowski adds, the former “Countdown” host sees this as a stepping stone to “wherever he and his agent are working to place him next.”
But Current TV may evolve more quickly than its past performance might suggest, says Fordham University media pundit Paul Levinson. The cable channel has had a robust online agenda from its inception, with user-generated content and a well-developed Web strategy for its unscripted content, he says.
The recent AOL purchase of the Huffington Post for some $315 million is evidence, Mr. Levinson says, that online news sites have come of age.
“That’s a site that began as an online salon for Arianna [Huffington] and all her high-profile friends,” he says, but it evolved into something much more important.
Current TV could emerge as a meaningful leader in the world of news and information content, he says, and finding a way to boost its profile is just what it needs.