Less than three weeks after being let out of his contract with MSNBC, mercurial anchor Keith Olbermann has landed a new gig from which it’ll be more difficult to get himself canned.
Olbermann, who closed out his final prime-time MSNBC telecast on Jan. 21, has agreed to host a one-hour weeknight program on Current TV beginning in late spring. The timing of the series launch coincides with the noncompete clause woven into the terms of the buyout deal with his former employer. In addition to the nightly show, Olbermann also will oversee editorial content as Current TV’s chief news officer, and he’s buying an equity stake in the network.
In a conference call held Tuesday morning, Olbermann confirmed the move to and his equity stake in the six-year-old media company, although he declined to offer any further details about his investment. Launched in 2005 by former Vice President Al Gore and his business partner, entrepreneur Joel Hyatt, Current is a privately held company.
“Nothing is more vital to a free America than a free media, and nothing is more vital to my concept of free media than news produced independently of corporate interference,” Olbermann said, by way of announcing the venture. “Current is the country’s only independent news organization.”
While details were scant, Olbermann said the new program would be “an improved and amplified version” of Countdown, the nightly show he had helmed at MSNBC since May 2003. The name of the new show and the time slot it will occupy on Current’s schedule are yet to be determined.
Originally devised as a showcase for short-form, user-generated content, Current began shifting toward a more traditional content strategy, with plans to run 30- and 60-minute programs, many of which will be acquisitions.
The network is available in 60 million U.S. households and its ratings deliveries are not presently reported by Nielsen. Olbermann’s former home network, MSNBC, boasts 91.6 million subscribers and in 2010 averaged 771,000 total viewers in prime time, of which nearly a third (251,000) were members of the 25-54 news demo.
Olbermann’s new partners are understandably pleased at having landed their new on-air talent, although Current TV will have to pull out all the stops to draw his fan base to the somewhat obscure cable channel. In Time Warner Cable’s New York market, Current can be found on channel 103, wedged between NBC Universal’s horror network Chiller and the 24/7 NY1 Rail and Road Report.
“We think viewers are truly waiting with bated breath for Keith’s show to start, so the question is, how do we creatively begin to promote this?” said Current CEO Mark Rosenthal. “He’ll be a huge draw for us.”
Although the partners talked up the fact that Current is the fastest growing cable network in the U.S.—Olbermann noted that the channel’s distribution is greater than MSNBC’s was at the time Countdown made its debut—Hyatt conceded that the new program wasn’t meant to compete with the likes of Fox News Channel, CNN or MSNBC. “We’re going to be much more differentiated,” he said, before adding that the new program will help boost the channel’s overall prime-time ratings.
Gore added that one of the benefits of being a privately held company is that Current does not have to disclose its quarterly earnings. The former veep did say that Current has “remained quite profitable through the Great Recession, and we’ve been increasingly profitable in the last two years.”
By at least one measure, Current has far to go before it can compete with other ad-supported news and information outlets. Per SNL Kagan estimates, the network in 2009 took in a mere $14.3 million in net ad sales revenue, putting it on a level with fellow startups like Gospel TV and the revamped Ovation.
But the announcement should drive more media buyers to Current’s upfront presentation, which is scheduled to be held Wednesday morning in New York. Clients include automakers Ford, Lexus and Mazda, as well as AT&T, Paramount Pictures, Sony and CPG giant Unilever.
“Many of my best friends are advertisers,” Olbermann joked when asked if he believed he was particularly sponsor-friendly. “As long as I have been on television, there have been advertisers who have sought out my product, my broadcasts.”
For its size, the network commands a decent affiliate fee, charging carriers around 12 cents per sub per month. That creates a monthly revenue stream of $7.2 million, for an annual haul of $86.4 million.
In recent years, Current has endured some not-insignificant growing pains, junking its early programming model and canceling a planned $100 million IPO. In November 2009, the company laid off 20 percent of its workforce as part of the drive to overhaul its content structure.
Before Olbermann climbed aboard, Current’s biggest splash came in March 2009 when two of its reporters, Laura Ling and Euna Lee, were detained by the North Korean military after they’d illegally crossed into the country from China. In July of that same year, former President Bill Clinton successfully negotiated the release of Ling and Lee.