Keith Olbermann is seen on the set of his show at MSNBC in this 2006 photo. (Jennifer S. Altman, For…)
Now that Keith Olbermann has joined Current TV, the question is whether the combative liberal firebrand can help elevate the 6-year-old network's profile — or whether Al Gore's cable dream will remain stubbornly earthbound.
Olbermann, the controversial broadcaster who abruptly exited MSNBC last month, announced Tuesday morning that he will join Current TV, the little-watched but rapidly growing cable outlet founded by former Vice President Gore and legal entrepreneur Joel Hyatt.
Current's audience is so tiny that the network was not even officially measured by the Nielsen Co. until late last year. Until now, the network was best known for its reporters Euna Lee and Laura Ling, who were detained for five months by North Korean authorities in 2009 until former President Bill Clinton, with whom Gore served, helped arrange their release.
Olbermann will later this spring host an as-yet untitled nightly program on Current and also become chief news officer and take an equity stake in the network. He said in a teleconference that he was looking forward to a platform offering "news produced independently of corporate interference."
Current, which is available in nearly 60 million U.S. cable and satellite homes and has 15 million more subscribers internationally, is a private company and does not report financial results. But the network — originally envisioned as a clearinghouse of news and information for viewers aged 18 to 34, a sort of CNN for the MTV generation — is supported by advertising and is seeking broader support among cable carriers as well as a larger audience.
Perhaps not coincidentally, the network will offer its "upfront" preview of programming to advertisers on Wednesday, with Olbermann's hiring expected to be central. "Advertisers have certainly looked at Keith as advertiser-friendly," Gore told reporters.
Olbermann and his new bosses offered few details about the host's new program, although the broadcaster hinted that it would be similar to "Countdown," the nightly opinion show that showcased liberal opinions and newsmakers. "Countdown" was MSNBC's top-rated offering, but the host frequently clashed with management at NBC Universal before he left abruptly last month.
During the height of the election season last year, Olbermann was briefly suspended after it came to light that he'd made donations to Democratic candidates, a violation of NBC policy. However, he developed a loyal fan base while at MSNBC, where his program averaged roughly 1 million viewers per night.
Olbermann said Tuesday that he did not "want to stay stationary in that sort of mainstream news environment."
With Olbermann's hiring, Current would seem to be lurching into the cable news race, where MSNBC and CNN have long run behind Fox News Channel. Hyatt insisted the network would not consider itself a player in cable news, even with its new talent on board, but deferred details until the network's upfront presentation. (It's unclear whether Olbermann is violating a provision in his exit agreement with MSNBC by taking the Current job. Neither Olbermann nor MSNBC officials would comment.)
The hiring will likely bring Current some welcome attention, at least in the short term. "Programming and personalities drive ratings," said Steve Sternberg, an independent programming analyst. Olbermann "can elevate ratings when he is onscreen, just like Oprah can on her network. But it won't have much impact when he's not onscreen."
That Gore — a lion of the Democratic party who won the Nobel Peace Prize for his environmental work — has hired the leading liberal broadcaster would seem to establish Current as a base for left-leaning opinion. Gore said he considered himself a "recovering politician" but that he found himself in "substantial agreement" with Olbermann's views.
Olbermann has said little about his falling-out with MSNBC since he left the network. On Tuesday he promised he would have more to say about that in the future, but that "this isn't the time to do it." An MSNBC spokesman said the network would have no comment on Olbermann's new deal.
As for Current, its leaders are confident that the Olbermann hiring will finally mark its entry into the big leagues of cable TV.
Indeed, Current is already taking swipes at one of its cable rivals. Hinting at the potential Current has despite its low viewership, Gore told reporters: "We have more subscribers today than MSNBC had when Keith Olbermann began working for them" in 2003.
However, an MSNBC spokesman quickly disputed that claim, citing Nielsen data that show the network had 78 million subscribers at the time.