Current TV, which hired Keith Olbermann with great fanfare last year after his firing by MSNBC, decided on Friday that they too had had enough of the volatile anchor and sent him into the ranks of the unemployed.
The network, which was co-founded by Al Gore, thought that they had scored a major coup when they hired Olbermann last year as part of a rebranding of Current TV.
That rebranding was meant to turn Current from a little seen or noticed cable network airing even lesser-known documentaries and viewer-provided content, to a major competitor of MSNBC and their brand of liberal journalism.
Gore, along with partner Joel Hyatt, thought that with Comcast taking a majority interest in NBC Universal it would steer MSNBC towards the middle, creating an opening for a true “progressive” cable news network.
The first part of the strategy to fill that perceived gap was to hire Olbermann to bring his Countdown program to Current and to oversee the news operation. Current then added a program last fall with another failed former MSNBC anchor, Cenk Uygur, and former Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm to fill out its primetime lineup.
Current also recently started simulcasting liberal radio talk-show hosts Bill Press and Stephanie Miller in the morning as they inch towards their goal of becoming a 24/7 network.
But Gore and Hyatt thought that they could manage Olbermann’s outsized ego, and thought that he was worth the risk to boost Current’s ratings and overall visibility. And they thought that Olbermann’s MSNBC viewers were so loyal to him that they would just follow him wherever he went.
They were partially right.
Olbermann did get big numbers, for Current, when his show debuted last June, but it didn’t take long for the thrill to wear off and for the show to fall back to the 100,000-plus range. This was better than anything Current had previously achieved, but far short of the one million viewers Olbermann had at MSNBC.
As a matter of fact, Olbermann was so confident that his hiring would have a positive impact on Current that he predicted, shortly after his hiring, that it would soon be as large as any other cable news channel in the country.
While Olbermann didn’t set a deadline as to when that would be achieved, Current still reaches the same 60 million or so households that it did a year ago and the new programming hasn’t spurred the kind of growth Gore and Hyatt were hoping for.
The decision to fire Olbermann was probably long in the making. Olbermann has been complaining for months about the lack of support from Current to run a cable news operation, and in January when the network ran a full page ad in The New York Times, it excluded Olbermann, except for a minor mention which only generated more rumors that Olbermann was on his way out.
Olbermann, for his part, isn’t leaving quietly. He took to Twitter immediately after the firing and will likely sue Current for the balance of his reported five-year $50 million contract.
Current is trying to move on and replaced Countdown with a new program called Viewpoint, hosted by former New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer, who was fired from CNN after failing to attract an audience. That doesn’t exactly portend well for Current.
Openly left-leaning networks, whether on television or radio, have so far had limited success. The idea that the market will support two liberal cable news networks, when MSNBC already badly trails Fox News, is a pipe dream at best.
But if Al Gore wants to waste his millions, I’m not going to stand in the way.