Wild Card: Olbermann and Current TV

Twenty-four hours after setting keyboards clacking with the news that he would be running herd on all news operations at Al Gore’s Current TV, Keith Olbermann pulled a Claude (The Invisible Man) Rains.

On the morning of Feb. 9, the splenetic anchor was conspicuously absent from the dais at New York’s Paley Center for Media, where Gore and a clutch of cable TV vets took the wraps off the network’s 2011-12 development slate for a small cohort of journalists.

In a way, Olbermann’s absence was emblematic of Current’s now-you-see-it, now-you-don’t status as one of basic cable’s most promising, yet obscure assets. Despite a fairly high-profile launch in 2005, the channel has struggled to define itself.

Two years after going live in some 20 million U.S. households, Current was still mired in a virtual backwater, failing to gain traction with its loop of user-generated programming and netting just $9.92 million in calendar-year ad sales revenue.

For the sake of comparison, that same year Olbermann’s former home base, MSNBC, was available in 91.1 million homes and hauled in $161.6 million in ad sales.

Current TV has shown improvement from its larval stage, expanding its distribution to 60 million households and junking the bulk of its social media-derived programming. Those gains could now pile up even faster, as Olbermann almost certainly will be dangled as a wriggly morsel of bait to operators who have yet to pick up the channel. Comparisons to the salubrious impact Howard Stern has had on Sirius XM Radio’s fortunes are inevitable.

Rich Yaffa, CEO of Media Ventures Group Holdings, said he believes Olbermann’s move to Current could benefit both parties. “The channel is obviously aligned with his interests and seems to jibe well with his old audience,” Yaffa said. “The trick is for Olbermann to rally the troops. He needs to connect with every community he engages with.”

Even a fraction of Olbermann’s nightly MSNBC following—his 8 p.m. program Countdown With Keith Olbermann averaged around 1.1 million viewers—would help drag Current TV out of cable’s ratings basement. Having only begun making ratings guarantees in Q4 2010, Current’s deliveries are still kept under wraps, but estimates peg the channel’s nightly audience in the 40,000 to 50,000 range, putting it at the bottom of the heap with the likes of VH1 Classic.

For all the juice he’ll lend to Current’s distribution efforts, Olbermann’s arrival prefigures a significant rift within the network itself. His prickly demeanor is the stuff of legend, and, as one former colleague observed, Olbermann “doesn’t have a recognizable personality so much as an interchangeable array of neuroses.”

In a sense, Olbermann has purchased a little long-term employment insurance, having bought an equity stake in Current TV. In keeping with Current’s status as a privately held company, none of the principals would offer any further details about the scope of Olbermann’s investment. When asked if the stake suggested that his contract with the network was more a buying-in than a selling-out, Olbermann made a crack about his agents before simply answering, “No. I’ll give you a straight ‘no’ on that.”

Those who have worked with Olbermann over the years suggest that he may be one of the only figures in the media business who has an almost clinical disinterest in money. “He’s not like everyone else in New York, with the wives to support and the kids in private schools,” said one associate. “That’s what makes Keith who he is. Money doesn’t mean that much to him at all, which really gives him the freedom to just go into the boss’ office and say, ‘Fuck you, fire me.’”

Indeed, there are no guarantees that he’ll play nice with the TV veterans who actually run the show at Current. The network is a murderer’s row of former MTV talent. CEO Mark Rosenthal served as the president and chief operating officer of MTV Networks for nearly a decade, and as entertainment president of the Viacom networks unit, programming chief Brian Graden developed such zeitgeist-defining hits as South Park, The Hills and Jackass.

Other former MTV hands are ex-ad sales boss Hank Close, who is serving as a consultant to Ken Ripley, Current’s evp of advertising sales, and Courtney Menzel, the channel’s evp of distribution.

An MTV higher-up who worked closely with Graden, Close and Menzel allowed that it would be difficult to find three people who’d be less likely to endure any outbursts from our generation’s Edward R. Murrow.

“These are people who worked in a heated but very collaborative environment,” the MTV exec said. “Yelling and screaming aren’t going to cut it.”

A former MSNBC hand said that Rosenthal would bear the brunt of Olbermann’s peculiarities should they indeed manifest themselves at Current.

“Every boss he’s ever had has hated Keith’s guts, and probably no one hated his guts more than [MSNBC president] Phil [Griffin],” the source said. “And because Keith doesn’t really give a shit about the kinds of things most people give a shit about—you know, things like having a job and sort of knowing when to choose your battles—sooner or later he explodes.”

What many people don’t understand about Olbermann is that he more or less was the boss of MSNBC’s prime-time lineup. Once Countdown caught fire in 2006, network brass understood that he held the keys to the network’s immediate future. “He went from being on his way out the door to running prime,” said a former MSNBC talent. “Phil turned over the day-to-day operations to Dan Abrams, and Keith just steamrolled all over him. The last five years, he was running things.”

As Olbermann begins to prepare the ground for his new program, Rosenthal promised that Current would spend the next few months getting the word out. “We’re not going to be quiet anymore,” he said, adding that the net was developing a comprehensive print and on-air campaign.

And if anyone had any trepidation about the big “get,” Gore dismissed the notion with a wry joke: “To be candid, the thing I worry about most is Keith’s show because he’s so shy.”