Is Keith Olbermann the Last Hope for Gore's Current TV?

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Illustration by Miles Donovan

It was early November when tensions between Keith Olbermann and Al Gore escalated into a crisis at Current TV. There had been a short honeymoon after Gore, the channel’s co-owner, had handed the notoriously temperamental anchor a reported $10 million salary and equity stake in February of last year, but the relationship soured quickly. Now, just five months after Olbermann’s show Countdown had resurfaced on Current, it looked as if he might walk away.

Accustomed to the flashy graphics and slick broadcasts of MSNBC, Olbermann balked at the cheap sets and lo-fi production values at the scrappy Current. Ensconced in his New York office, the star ignored emails from the network’s West Coast executives. He wanted them to invest more on the technical side, and he wanted more authority in other areas of the network, including personnel decisions. He was also upset about his car service. Gore and his partners had shelled out for a star; now, it seemed, the star owned them.

By November, network executives were exhausted by his antics, according to a source familiar with the inner workings of Current. Olbermann was implacable. Executives feared an ugly, public fight.

The prospects were potentially ruinous for Current. After it had struggled for six years as an assertively nonpartisan news network, baffling critics and going largely unnoticed by viewers, Current’s founders, Gore and partner Joel Hyatt, had finally come up with what could be a game-changing plan: to reinvent the station as a 24-hour-a-day, seven-day-a-week liberal cable-news outlet, a bastion for progressive ideas and politics on television, a way to harness and influence the Democratic Party—in short, as Hyatt says, the “anti-Fox.”

The timing was perfect. Current’s liberal baptism was coming at the beginning of a tabloid-ready presidential election—just the conditions that had launched Roger Ailes’s Fox News out of the 2000 race as the ballsiest and most powerful voice in political media. The network’s natural audience had been energized into a national movement in Occupy Wall Street, with young people sleeping in the streets and yelling about government corruption, industrial greed, and social inequality. At the center of Current’s rebirth was supposed to be Keith Olbermann.

Which is why, mere weeks before the Iowa caucuses, the former vice president found himself prostrate before his celebrity anchor, begging him not to go, according to the source. Internally, network executives fretted over what the former vice president should say to Olbermann to keep him onboard.

Presented with this account, Current president David Bohrman told Newsweek, “Keith is a unique guy.” Olbermann did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

Gore’s company politicking, plus the intervention of lawyers for both sides, seems to have worked. Olbermann—for now—is sitting tight. Current’s big media plan, hastily drawn up after the network managed to hire Olbermann, is quickly sliding into place. What it’s after is nothing short of the holy grail of left-wing politics. And Al Gore, who knows what it’s like to be this close to triumph, is determined not to fail.

The only problem: how do you build a television network, let alone a political movement, around a person who won’t even take your calls?

The story of Current TV is, in one version, the story of Al Gore trying to deny his fate. In 2004 Gore and Hyatt, a lawyer and Democratic politician and now Current’s CEO, bought a cable channel. They kept their plans secret, but there was only one obvious way to go: capitalize on Gore’s popularity to launch a fearsome left-wing news outlet focused on the environment and the vice president’s other passion projects.

What debuted as Current TV a year later left viewers and critics scratching their heads. Instead of a network created in Gore’s image, he and Hyatt came out with a studiously nonpartisan channel stocked with short videos, mostly sent in by viewers. Few understood the idea, and fewer tuned in. Throughout its efforts at reinvention—in 2006 partnering with Yahoo and in 2007 creating Vanguard, a kind of indie 60 Minutes—the network maintained its nonpartisan stance, with middling results. In 2009 Current announced it would raise $100 million for an IPO, but soon abandoned the plan.

Then, in January 2011, Olbermann—after years of bombast both on and off the set—left MSNBC like a brick through a window. Gore and Hyatt, in desperate need of a new direction, pounced. They promised him a $15 million show budget and $5 million for marketing, according to The Hollywood Reporter. They took his suggestions for big hires. They gave him the title of not just anchor but “chief news officer” for the whole outlet. And they started their network makeover.

current-tv-fe03-dana-2ndary Jennifer Granholm on the set of "The War Room with Jennifer Granholm." Jake Stangel for Newsweek

One morning this winter, I spoke with Bohrman as he raced around like a general preparing his ragtag army for invasion. Current has been cagey about its specific plans, in part because they were light on specifics. But Bohrman, not keen on giving interviews, pulled back the curtain a few inches for Newsweek.

There is perhaps no one better poised to oversee this anti-Fox reinvention than the tireless news executive, beloved by his staff and unafraid of innovation and technology. In his three decades in the business, Bohrman, son of broadcaster Stan Bohrman, has created nearly a dozen shows and experimented eagerly with new media, helping to haul television news into the digital age. He created 2008’s YouTube debates. He has led CNN’s Washington bureau and run 10 news broadcasts. Remember CNN’s hologram technology, which beamed the likes of rapper will.i.am into the studio during the last presidential election? That was Bohrman. “If you look at MSNBC, you look at Fox, you look at CNN, the dysfunction in Washington is really reflected in the dysfunction of what you see on the cable networks,” he says.

Bohrman’s primetime lineup is now in place and, Current’s internal dysfunctions aside, he’s hoping to bring sanity to TV news. The new programming will yank the network to the left. Countdown, at 8 p.m., is flanked by shows anchored by Cenk Uygur, late of MSNBC, and former Michigan governor Jennifer Granholm, whose show debuted at the end of January. (The sets have been built anew: Granholm’s looks like a political war room, with bumper stickers and posters covering the walls.) Bohrman is now rushing to develop a morning show that could provide a liberal alternative to Morning Joe, which Current executives view as an essentially conservative broadcast. He is also looking at real estate for a production headquarters and, further down the line, thinking about a Sunday show to take on Meet the Press. Bohrman dreams of hosting a debate in 2016.

The network’s plans will continue to capitalize on the one thing it has done well: attract a younger audience. Current has always been squarely aimed at 18- to 34-year-old viewers—stemming from both an idealistic mission to engage young citizens and a desire to appeal to advertisers, who don’t much care about anyone over 55. “If you really want to have an impact, you have to talk to a generation younger than the 60-year-olds who are watching cable,” Hyatt says. Current’s viewers are about 15 years younger than the average news viewer anywhere else. Only about 47,000 viewers tuned in to its coverage of the Iowa caucuses, but their average age was 36.

Olbermann is the cornerstone of this strategy. The plan calls for him to anchor Countdown nightly and to be the face of the network for all election coverage and special reports. Though he’s a ghost in Current’s West Coast offices, his spirit suffuses the place. Uygur, who considers him a mentor, describes MSNBC as “the house Olbermann built.” Granholm calls him “the Walt Whitman of political writing.”

“When we were able to land Keith Olbermann, which was a great programming coup for us, what flowed from that coup was the strategic imperative that we go all in,” Hyatt tells Newsweek. “We are coming now to where a lot of people thought we were always going to be.”

The plan may well be the network’s last chance. The lion’s share of its $115 million in revenues comes from fees that cable carriers pay to host the network—a relatively high rate of 12 cents per subscriber—but its ratings are not high enough to sustain those fees, according to an analysis by the financial-data firm SNL Kagan. With carriage agreements beginning to expire in the next couple of years, the network is likely to see a sharp drop in financing unless its viewership turns around. “They’ve got a very limited window here to get their programming in order,” says Derek Baine, an analyst with SNL Kagan. “The channel has been around for a long time and has gone through many iterations, but despite having quite a lot of subscribers, they’ve never really latched on to a significant viewing audience.”

Also working against the plan is a cold reality about partisan news programming: the right just does it much more successfully than the left. For every Rachel Maddow, the Olbermann protégée who found success on MSNBC, there is an Air America, the left-wing radio network that went belly up in 2010. Liberals in the media argue there’s a very simple explanation for this: that conservatives are just a more unified, lockstep audience, while liberals are more trusting of traditional media and more diffuse in their attentions. “There is an audience on the right that for 30 years has been told the entire mainstream media is out to get them,” says Ari Rabin-Havt, executive vice president of the progressive media-watchdog group Media Matters and author of a forthcoming book about Fox News. No such thing exists on the left. Plus, he says, those who are alienated from the mainstream can find their news at liberal enclaves online, like Daily Kos. “The right wing is so much better organized, they’re machines, they’re robots,” says Uygur. And mainstream media are terrified of them. “It’s like, ‘Oh, my God, if I tell people facts, the Republicans will yell at me,’” he says.

current-tv-fe03-dana-3rd Control room of Jennifer Granholm's show. Jake Stangel for Newsweek

But perhaps the largest gamble is Olbermann himself. Unafraid of conflict on the air, or off, the anchor has a legendary temper. He was caustic and persnickety, former colleagues say. One news report holds that staffers at MSNBC had to communicate with him through a mailbox outside his office.

That reputation has continued at Current TV. Gore and Hyatt managed to placate Olbermann enough in November to prevent him from leaving, but theirs is hardly a close working relationship. Following that episode, the anchor failed to respond to emails from others at the network about plans to cover the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary, according to a network source, and so Bohrman was forced to plan around him. (The New York Times reported on the conflict, and a slew of gleeful Olbermann bashing followed: Gawker put out a call for horror stories from the anchor’s former colleagues and employees; CNN’s Piers Morgan mocked him openly; and MSNBC president Phil Griffin, who gave a smirking speech at his company’s Christmas party about how the network’s strong ratings had survived Olbermann’s departure, could barely contain his enthusiasm, according to a source.) When the coverage of Iowa and New Hampshire did air, it featured Uygur and Granholm anchoring alongside Gore himself.

The bickering, bartering, and flattery culminated in early January with lawyers from Current meeting with Olbermann to negotiate an uneasy peace. Asked about the anchor, who could earn up to $100 million from the network in salary and compensation over the length of his contract, Bohrman says, “I don’t think we’re going to talk about my interactions with Keith ... The one thing that I know instinctively is that Keith should be Keith. There’s no one at Current that’s ever gonna tell him what to say or what to do.”

With the situation at least momentarily under control—Olbermann was calm, thoughtful, and at times even lighthearted while covering the South Carolina primary—Gore and Hyatt just might tiptoe their way to a viable television network without disturbing their only star.

Gore, ever politic, presses on. “Keith is fulfilling exactly the role that I had hoped for,” he told Newsweek in an email interview.

Others are less hopeful.

“They’re relying on a time bomb to define themselves,” says one insider. “No matter how carefully you work to defuse it, it will go off.”

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