Thursday, February 10, 2011

A Current_ affair

We were well into studying the case of the vanishing Keith Olbermann, toying with the various speculations: When would CNN drop the bomb? Was Murdoch bluffing when he said Never in Hell at Fox? Would Keith go Hollywood?

Just like that, there’s nothing to study anymore.

On Tuesday, it was announced that Olbermann would be moving to Current TV, to helm a one-hour news show sometime in “late spring,” probably late May. There’s no name for the program yet, but at least two name-specific Internet domains have been secured. In a conference call with reporters, Olbermann described the forthcoming program as "an improved, amplified and stronger version of the show that I just did at my previous network," MSNBC, whose name dared not cross KO’s lips.

According to The Hollywood Reporter (which covered this thing like a blanket), Current is in the development and production process with Olbermann, including the hunt for the right executive producer.

Tim Goodman may have got it right in HR: “[W]hat we have here is either Olbermann poised for the greatest comeback since Lazarus or one enormous cable renovation project that might need more hammers, drills and saws than the world has available.”

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On its face it’d seem to be a knockout for Olbermann and for Current. For Olbermann, it returns him to prime-time television for more of the day’s events filtered through his topical, kaleidoscopic lens. It’s his chance to jump back into the national discourse now that things are really cooking: the 112th Congress is in session, Egypt is in turmoil and Sarah Palin is ramping up her game (have her lawyers formally adopted the Sarah Palin® device I’ve used here forever?).

It’s surprising all this came together so soon after his leaving MSNBC at the end of January. Shortly after his departure, speculation was rampant that Olbermann would be barred from television for some time as a non-compete condition in the exit agreement; some estimates put Olbermann’s TV exile at six months or longer. (We can only guess what the negotiations were like to let Olbermann go back on the air this quickly — a different thing from the strict NBC noncompete that Conan O’Brien had to endure before he finally showed up on TBS.)

This time Keith comes with extras. Olbermann is reportedly to receive an equity stake in Current TV, a potentially huge payout if the network succeeds. And he comes to Current TV bearing the vaguely kapo title of Chief News Officer; he’ll be in charge of directing the arc of much of Current’s news programming, including the programs that bookend his own.

He wouldn’t characterize it so grandly, but this could amount to an instant empire, Olbermann’s best opportunity to impart his fiercely populist stamp on a prime-time news program with a minimum of the chafing with corporate he encountered at MSNBC.

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For Current, the channel co-founded by Al Gore and Joel Hyatt in 2005, the acquisition of Olbermann gains them what every network needs: a face that defines the brand. In this respect, this is a match made in heaven.

Analyst Matthew Harrigan, interviewed by HR’s Georg Szalai, estimated that Current’s current average primetime viewership — right around 23,000 — could increase 10 times or more. "Keith Olbermann obviously was the man who made MSNBC, and he has got a very loyal audience," said Harrigan, of Wunderlich Securities. "This is huge for Current."

For years now Current has been laying in the cut, making its mark with Vanguard, a series that highlights riveting work from a young and daring documentary unit, as well as Ira Glass' “This American Life” and other, fluffier fare like “InfoMania,” a satiric take on the news and too clever by half.

Up to this point, the most visible face connected with Current isn’t even on the air. Right now to the public at large, Current equals Al Gore. While that's true enough on one level, it’s a problem in trying to establish an identity in the language of modern television.

With Olbermann aboard? Identity issue addressed. His presence at Current gives the fledgling network more cred as a mainstream entity; Current by default becomes a louder voice in the mediasphere. "It is the first thing Current TV has done since launch to put itself on the map. It's been a non-factor in terms of programming … for the first time, this puts Current on the map as a real player." Larry Gerbrandt, principal at Media Valuation Partners, told HR's Szalai.

Given Current’s relatively poor ratings numbers, that’s probably a good thing. Despite being available in somewhere between 30 million and 60 million homes, Current is being actively watched during prime-time by about 23,000 households. There’s public-access channels showing bad performance art with audiences bigger than that.

Olbermann can help turn that around.

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And with the political season dead ahead, there’s something more going on. November’s tie-up of Newsweek and The Daily Beast, last month’s acquisition of NBC Universal by Comcast; Monday’s acquisition of The Huffington Post by AOL and Current’s appointment of Olbermann indicate the advance of a basic realignment in the power centers of journalism, moving away from the legacy entities of media (The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, etc.) and moving toward eager, deep-pocketed, tech-savvy relative newcomers who aren’t captive to the institutional lethargies of the old guard (if for no better reason than they haven’t been around long enough for that to happen).

Tina Brown launched The Daily Beast in October 2008. Comcast’s big NBCU buy represents its first (and deeply concerning) foray into the content end of the communications business; the current iteration of AOL was birthed at the end of 2009. And Current didn’t go on the air until August 2005.

The fact that these newcomers are bulking up so quickly on known media players and properties less than two years before a presidential election (one that promises to be, at the least, memorable) says they mean to be contenders in the evolving media universe during the white-hot intensity of the next campaign for the White House.

Over the past year, AOL’s Patch project has wired together a series of 500+ community Web sites into a vast hyperlocal news network that reports news that’s pertinent to local communities — well off the radar of the major newsgatherers. And Current TV’s current programming, strongly directed at the youngest voting demographic, has long since tapped into social media and Google’s search tools.

Count on nationally granular hyperlocal news and social media to play a bigger role in both the electoral process and the journalism that monitors and reports that process next year. Count on these newcomers to find ways to leverage new-media tools into journalism that breaks further out of the mainstream media box.

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And watch for the Olbermann-MSNBC conflict to go from hot war to cold war. "He had no choice but to go to a place like Current because his non-compete excluded just about every other place," an MSNBC insider told HR, dismissing Olbermann’s move.

Frankly, that sour-grapes reaction from a former employer is to be expected when a high-profile figure gets shown the door. And besides being predictable, eventually it would have been inaccurate; whenever Olbermann’s noncomplete restrictions ended, he would presumably have been able to go anywhere he wanted (unless the lock on his future employers was so vise-like it might well amount to indentured servitude by proxy).

Which begs the question of why he got to Current so quickly. It’s a given that Al Gore could be very persuasive; the fact that Gore went to Keith about this gig at almost the same time KO was carrying his desk-contents box out of 30 Rock must have certainly greased the wheels of talks. The two have apparently been friends for some time. And for Olbermann, there would be some sweet revenge in landing on his feet immediately after leaving MSNBC, crawling from the wreckage into a brand new car.

Only thing is, it’s a much smaller car. From the standpoint of viewers, KO’s gone from a stretch limousine to a SMART car. That 23,000 figure is for prime-time viewers; HR reported that “Current averaged 18,000 homes in primetime for fourth quarter 2010, lower than any other network measured by Nielsen.”

Gore’s not worried. “Among his many talents, he has an eye for what works, what doesn't who would be good on his show and potentially doing other shows,” Gore said on the conference call and as quoted by HR.

“And we're going to let that evolve,” he said. “He's always done that. He was more responsible than anyone else by far in making the brand of the network he most recently worked at. … So he knows how to do this.”

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Still, given the rapacious competitions of television news, analysts and various slaves to metrics will look at the numbers and proclaim that Olbermann has committed career suicide. His move seems on its face counter-intuitive as far as audience numbers are concerned. And that’s what Current needs, badly. When you’ve been on the air for just short of five years and your network is available in up to 60 million homes and you’re only seen in 23,000 of them, any bid to be a Contender means building an airplane and flying it at the same time.

And that’s what inescapably reinforces Olbermann’s move as an act of pure, unalloyed principle. Olbermann could have gone anywhere. He didn’t go anywhere. He went to Current, whose resources and talent pool, however formidable, pale in comparison to the reach of the newly reconfigured NBCUniversal. It was a conscious choice to take this direction; even if the salary’s the same, the reach he’ll have isn’t near as far.

Let’s assume for now that for Olbermann (a millionaire several times over already) it’s not about the salary — and with an equity stake in a network, it doesn’t have to be. What’s left? Doing it because you believe in where this network is going and where it could go, who it could reach with the right mix of, well, everything. KO could have stayed in the cable arena’s NFL; instead he’s reaching out to join the ranks of the ratings equivalent of a Pop Warner team. Why? Maybe he’s not joining the team for what it is. Maybe he’s joining the team for what it can be.

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For Olbermann, it’s not about having the cash, it’s about being in the conversation. With that kind of motivation and with creative control of the program, he could be the prime mover in yet another groundbreaking rebuild of the television news model.

And what happens next at MSNBC? How are Rachel Maddow’s numbers trending? Will MSNBC political analysts be barred from appearing as guests on Olbermann’s new venture? Will other analysts similarly under contract? How far is this gonna go? Who throws the next haymaker in this bout?

The media universe is spinning wild again. This is like musical chairs, only here some of the contestants are assembling the chairs before they sit in them. The phrase “stay tuned” is all too overused (mea culpa), but it’s all you can do. Watch what happens. The countdown to late May is on.

Image credits: Olbermann: Screenshot from MSNBC. Gore: Kjetil Bjørnsrud, republished under GNU Free Documentation License v 2.1. Logos are the properties of their respective corporate parents.

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