For Keith Olbermann, Return of ‘Countdown’ Just Phase One of Current TV Transformation

By Alex Weprin 

Tonight at 8 PM on Current TV, former MSNBC host Keith Olbermann will return to television, re-launching his program “Countdown” on the cable network founded by former Vice President Al Gore and Joel Hyatt.

For Olbermann, the new “Countdown” is not just a fresh beginning for himself, it is a fresh beginning for the network, which he clearly plans on turning into a direct competitor to MSNBC.

“We are gearing towards eventually becoming a 24-hour news, commentary, analysis and information network,” Olbermann told reporters on a conference call Friday. That is a stark contrast to what Current laid out earlier this year at its upfront presentation, which looked to be part MSNBC, part Discovery Channel. With Olbermann helming 8 PM, and looking to add more hours of news and commentary programming in primetime, the entertainment shows may eventually fade away.

MSNBC is not taking the threat from Current lightly. The NY Times Brian Stelter reports that MSNBC has been paying up to secure deals with contributors, and is developing a new show for Nation writer Chris Hayes. Meanwhile Olbermann has been securing contributors to his show, though many of the bigger names are unlikely to have exclusivity clauses. For his first show Olbermann will host filmmaker Michael Moore and Daily Kos founder Markos Moulitsas.

Olbermann says the most appealing part of the new program is not having to worry about corporate bosses peering over his shoulder:

“[Current]is a corporation and we are trying to make money here, but every decision that will be made monetarily will be half-monetary, half news decision, as opposed to other environments where a decision about what is on a show in a given night has ramifications reaching from other television networks to radio operations to billboard companies to theme parks in Orlando and Anaheim, California to all-sports TV networks,” Olbermann said, citing a chilling effect on commentary. “You begin to see it there as you type and wonder if what you are saying will honk someone off in some electronics division somewhere.”

While the new outlet may not have the typical corporate structure overseeing it, it will also not be able to benefit from the wide-reaching news division that Olbermann had access to at MSNBC. Instead, Olbermann says they will have on reporters from other outlets to talk about news, and will focus on commentary and information.

“We don’t have a White House correspondent, and even as we go toward 24 hours, I don’t think we are going to have a White House correspondent,” Olbermann said. “When we need a reporter we will have a reporter, when we need someone on the scene, we will have someone on the scene, we have an outstanding documentary unit called ‘Vanguard,’ which is a skeleton–in the most complementary sense–of an outstanding international news operation.”

Olbermann ended his conference call as he often would his daily show–with a “Special Comment.” His subject was TV ratings.

Trying to get ahead of the coming wave of press, Olbermann downplayed the expectations for ratings his first day and week on Current. The channel currently averages only a few dozen thousand viewers in primetime, a number that will likely be improved when Olbermann returns tonight. Nonetheless, he said he views his new show as the start of a longer journey. Any cable news channel would agree that ratings are a marathon, not a sprint, and in this case–at least for Current–the launch of “Countdown” marks little more than the starting gun.

“What I would like to encourage everyone to remember is that no matter what they look like, the ratings for Monday night will be about Monday night’s show, the ratings we are interested in are the ratings really for the year 2013, once the election settles down,” Olbermann said. “We are in this for the long-haul; we are in this to build a 24-hour a day operation.”

The challenge for Olbermann is that he has to start this marathon with the competition getting a substantial head-start. Fox News Channel is far ahead in the distance, MSNBC has an entrenched audience, and CNN has distribution that Current can only dream about.