When former MSNBC commentator Keith Olbermann starts a new prime-time show at Current TV in San Francisco this spring, he will bring the 5-year-old network two things it has never had much of: viewers and buzz.
The liberal host had 1 million prime-time viewers when he abruptly left MSNBC last month after eight years, with neither party offering a reason. Current TV, despite being available in 60 million U.S. homes, has 23,000 prime-time viewers for its mix of user-generated and scripted entertainment and news.
But analysts said Tuesday's announcement of the arrival of the witty, acerbic Olbermann - a three-time winner of the Edward R. Murrow Award - could give Current currency. It intends to rebuild around Olbermann, much as MSNBC did by surrounding the anchor with fellow liberals such as Rachel Maddow.
To date, Current has been best known for its co-founder, former Vice President Al Gore, and for two of its reporters being detained for 4 1/2 months by the North Korean government in 2009 before former President Bill Clinton helped secure their release.
Under the leadership of a former MTV executive during the past year, the network has moved away from the short-form, user-generated work that was its staple. Now it programs more half-hour and hourlong shows.
"That was my first question: Who's watching it?" said Brad Adgate, director of research for Horizon Media, a media industry analytical and research firm.
Adgate's second question? "What channel is (Current) on?"
Rough few years
Current is available in 25 million fewer homes than MSNBC, as it is less likely to be included in a basic cable package. While Current won an Emmy Award in 2007 for Best Interactive Television Service, it rarely generates cultural buzz.
In addition, the past few years have been difficult economically. The network has laid off 140 employees since 2008 and now has a staff of 250 to 300. In April 2009, Current canceled a planned IPO as the economy sagged. It had been on the market for a $400 million-plus asking price.
Still, Gore said Tuesday that the privately held Current is "profitable." Current gets fees from cable providers and had low programming costs - until Tuesday's announcement that it hired Olbermann.
"We are delighted to provide Keith with the independent platform and freedom that Current can and does uniquely offer," Gore said Tuesday.
Olbermann offered few specifics other than say his new show, to originate in New York, will be "an improved, and we hope amplified and stronger, version of the show that I just did."
He will receive an undisclosed ownership stake in Current, though one not believed to be larger than Gore's or that of co-founder Joel Hyatt.
Since he began at MSNBC, Olbermann's biting commentary helped to nearly quadruple his audience there. But he bristled at management - and the feeling was mutual.
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In November, MSNBC suspended Olbermann for making campaign contributions of $2,400 to each of three Democratic candidates who appeared on his show.
"I don't want to imply that there were massive corporate forces working against individual stories," Olbermann said Tuesday. "We're talking about the industry as a whole.
"None of this should be directed at my nine previous employers. ... Without getting too high-falutin', we're talking about a larger purpose," Olbermann said in explaining his move to Current.
Gore said Olbermann would be allowed to contribute to political candidates, but the network would disclose them to viewers.
When he founded Current, Gore assured audiences that he would not create a liberal TV network. He addressed that Tuesday by saying audiences would be well-served by hearing from Olbermann.
Serving the audience
"You do what you have to do to get viewers," said Larry Gerbrandt, a veteran media analyst who has also worked at the Nielsen Co. "Has Obama kept every promise he made? Necessity makes you do things."
Many liberals, including Eden James, director of organizing at Change.org, a leading progressive online hub, were thrilled.
"At a time when the corporate consolidation of mass media has raised troubling questions about the future of independent media, Keith Olbermann's voice has become a progressive institution," James said. "His core progressive audience will gravitate (with him) over time."
Where to watch
Here are the channels carrying San Francisco's Current TV:
Comcast Digital - Channel 107
AT&T U-Verse - Channel 189
DIRECTV - Channel 358
DISH Network - Channel 196
Source: Current TV