Current TV Plans Its Reinvention: Part MSNBC, Part Discovery Channel, With More Professional Content

By Alex Weprin 

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When Current TV was founded in 2005 by Vice President Al Gore and Joel Hyatt, it was meant to be the social media network. Viewers would contribute content, and even design ads. Five years later, and that idea has still failed to gain traction.

Now Current, with the guidance of former MTV programming chief Brian Graden and former MSNBC host Keith Olbermann, hopes to reinvent itself as a younger-skewing non-fiction network. One part MSNBC, one part Discovery Channel, with a little bit of MTV thrown in for good measure.

This morning Current held a preview of its “Upfront” presentation to advertisers at the Paley Center for Media in New York, and TVNewser was there as Gore, Hyatt, Graden and Current CEO Mark Rosenthal previewed the network’s upcoming programming slate.

There seem to be two lineups in development: the first is a news and political lineup, led by Olbermann, as well as the network’s well-received documentary series “Vanguard.” Olbermann was top of mind at the breakfast, with Gore calling him “one of America’s great provocateurs” while Hyatt was even more effusive, saying of Olbermann:

“He speaks truth to power, he calls them as he sees them, speak his mind. Al and I passionately believe that our society needs Keith’s thoughtful analysis and commentary.”

Current seems to be betting that Olbermann will bring them the viewers that it has struggled to find since its inception five years ago.

“We welcome Keith, and we also look forward to welcome his ardent fans as viewers of Current TV,” Hyatt said.

When asked what plans they had to promote the network, Gore and Hyatt said that the standard ad buys on other cable channels and in print would be made, but a bigger push would be through “non-traditional” media like social networks. Either way, expect Olbermann to be at the forefront of any campaign:

“To be candid, the one I am most worried about is Keith’s show, because he is so shy,” Gore quipped.

Then there is the other Current TV, the one with unscripted programming like “Smoke Jumpers,” which follows firefighters in Montana that parachute into forest fires to put them out, and “4th and Forever,” which chronicles a high school football team in Long Beach California. The network has also acquired “This American Life,” and movies like “An Inconvenient truth,” “Bowling for Columbine” and “Syriana.”

Suffice it to say, these are programs that you would not typically see on CNN, MSNBC or Fox News.

During the presentation Rosenthal showed a slide with all of the non-fiction networks on a line, with MTV, Spike and Oxygen way to the left, History and Discovery towards the middle, and CNN, Fox News and MSNBC to the right. Their plans is to position Current somewhere between Discovery and the cable news channels. With entertainment programming that is advertiser-friendly and has broader appeal than news or politics shows, while also building that loyal fan base with Olbermann’s program and news guidance.

And there was plenty of criticism of the competition this morning.

“Among the networks in each category, there is a natural competitive tendency to lean on the same formats, to chase the same stories and use the same angles,” Rosenthal said. “They really aren’t that different from each other any more.”

“This American Life” host Ira Glass was even more blunt:

“Fact-based programming, basically the entire fact-based business seems to always be in crisis,”  he said. “Newspapers are in crisis, fewer and fewer people watch television news. The fact that 20 percent of the country thinks the President is a Muslim tells me that the fact-based world is doing a really terrible job.”

Of course, it is easy to criticize while sitting on a couch and watching what everyone else is doing. By hiring Olbermann and boosting its entertainment portfolio, the network clearly wants to play with the big boys.

“Will it be able to?” is the real question, and that may not be answered for years.