Will Keith Olbermann's move to Current TV spark a civil war for liberal news viewers?
Former MSNBC star Keith Olbermann may not have mentioned the word "liberal" one time.
But in announcing Tuesday his new status as signature star for former Vice President Al Gore's Current TV cable channel, Olbermann faced a conference call of reporters to suggest he can repeat the lightning strike which helped him turn MSNBC into a voice for liberal politics competing with CNN.
Joined by Gore and channel executives, Olbermann revealed he would star in a prime time show for Current airing five times a week from New York City. He would also serve as chief news officer for the channel, a position executives said might allow him to help as an executive producer, developing other shows for the channel.
And he is also now an equity partner in the channel; moving from becoming a highly paid star to an owner with a vested interest in Current succeed.
What he couldn't say: When exactly the show will debut (Gore said "late spring.") What the format of the show will be (Olbermann called it "an improved and we hope amplified and stronger version of the show I just did.") Whether the show will feature specific bits from his old MSNBC show such as Worst Persons in the World (Olbermann hinted that the segment might survive with a new name).
And most importantly, whether the show will target the same liberal viewers who may feel disrespected by conservative-tilting Fox News and unrepresented by middle-of-the-road CNN (channel executives downplayed the cable news race, saying they would reveal a new program lineup to advertisers Wednesday which would answer some of those questions.)
"None of this should be considered directed towards any of my nine previous full time employers," said Olbermann, who seemed to take pains not to disparage former employer MSNBC, at least until whatever non-disparagement contract obligation they have together ends. "There’s nothing wrong with people making money…provided there is also an avenue in which those market forces are not the deciding factor in what we’re doing here. At this point, Current is not only leading independent news and information network...it really is the only one.”
As chairman, co-founder and part owner of Current, Gore was effusive in his praise for Olbermann, while sidestepping the question of whether Current would become a more liberal-focused network: "I find myself in substantial agreement with the views I've heard Keith Olbermann express," he said. "I think the conversation of Democracy in the United States of America benefits greatly from having Keith Olbermann's voice heard."
Olbermann, of course famously departed MSNBC abruptly in January, sparking reports the anchor and the cable news channel agreed to part ways amid increasing friction. No one asked the anchor Tuesday about stories insinuating he left a string of signature jobs at ESPN, CNN, Fox Sports and MSNBC over repeated conflicts with management in each organization.
So it was difficult to know how an anchor with a reputation for having a prickly personality off camera -- The New York Times reported the anchor at times threatened to not show up for work at MSNBC over conflicts -- could shepherd an entire network's news department.
"It's impossible, since we are still working out the mechanics of my show, to project what other shows around mine might look like," Olbermann said. "This is not my first dance in this regard. At MSNBC in prime time, we essentially carried along for quite a while with one program and essentially built up a network based on that."
Citing his work on signature shows at MSNBC and ESPN, Current executives clearly hope Olbermann can repeat that success with them. Both the anchor and the executive stressed that Current is available in about as many homes now as MSNBC was when he started there in 2003.
But the anchor's tumultuous history also suggests a brilliant broadcaster who gets into the most trouble once he's built success.
In other words, Olbermann may be able to create a new, successful TV legacy at Current. But even if he succeeds, can he maintain it?
One thing he will not have to worry about; Current has no rules against staffers making the kind of political donations which got Olbermann into trouble at MSNBC last November, as long as they are publicly disclosed. "We believe at Current that every citizen has freedom of speech and freedom of speech includes the ability to donate to the candidate of your choice," Gore said. "We also believe full disclosure of that is important to inform the viewers."
Olbermann backed Gore's position: "Our obligation to the viewer is to disclose," said the anchor, who landed in hot water at MSNBC for not disclosing donations for three Democratic candidates to his viewers or his bosses until they surfaced in a public record. "If these things happen in the future...they will be told to the viewer as it happens."
But when asked for more information about Current's claims of profitability, channel officials, including Gore, cited the organization's status as a private company and declined to offer details.