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.
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 outfive 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 weekahead 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’sreported 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 afull-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 itsaffiliation with Laura Ling and Euna Lee, who were imprisoned in North Korea while on assignment.
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.
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.