Olbermann’s Big Gamble?

Maybe, maybe not: Current TV is a very unsure bet

The Al Gore-founded Current TV has been called many things since it first went to air on August 1, 2005—and even before that. When rumors surfaced that Gore had television ambitions, many thought he was looking to start a Fox News Channel for the left, a kind of televised Air America. Then, when Gore and co-founder Joel Hyatt confirmed that “Current TV” was happening and what it would be—a nonideological roster of short, youth-created YouTube-style mini-documentaries—it was called something else: a television revolution. It was also called a high-risk gamble, an ambitious leap ahead of the curve, and a foolhardy endeavor. Then, for a while, it wasn’t called much at all.

In the almost six years since Current TV launched to great fanfare and media buzz, it has generally defied expectations. Mostly it has done so by staying out of sight and out of mind. But even if you look closely, many predictions were well off the mark. Has it revolutionized television? With an average of 23,000 primetime viewers and just a trickle of incoming user-generated content, not exactly. What has it become then? Not much of anything, really, in terms of impact. The only time most Americans have thought of Current TV in the past five years was when two of its reporters, Laura Ling and Euna Lee, were captured in March 2009 after walking across the shallow Tumen River from China to North Korea.

That was, of course, until yesterday.

The media surrounding Keith Olbermann’s announcement yesterday that he was joining the network recalled some of the media surrounding Current TV’s early days: optimistic sound bites from a jovial conference call in which @KeithOlbermann and Gore announced that the Countdown anchor would not only host a revved-up version of that MSNBC show, but he would be “chief news officer” of the network. “Nothing is more vital to a free America than a free media, and nothing is more vital to my concept of a free media than news produced independently of corporate interference,” Olbermann said, in what was no doubt a rejoinder to a certain interfering corporation he’s familiar with.

The analysis following the announcement was full of predictions and snap-judgments about winners and losers in the deal. But the non-event of Current TV since its launch should give us pause in rushing to define Olbermann’s impact on the network, or its impact on him. The original Current TV headlines—the advent of “Do-It-Yourself News,” “For Gore, a Reincarnation on the Other Side of the Camera,” “Al Gore’s TV Revolution”—and talk of great innovation never really bore out as grandiosely as they may have. Skeptical Newsweek reporter Brad Stone wrote a feature on Current before the network’s launch in 2005. Assessing Gore’s idea to launch of a network run on short-form topical but-not-news documentaries, Stone wrote, “The promise of that ambiguity is that Current TV may develop new ways of telling stories. The danger is that it will end up not really being anything.” And in a sense that is how the network defied expectations, by never really becoming anything.

That’s not to say that Current TV hasn’t attempted to innovate. There were early Google tie-ins, and an online Yahoo! Current Network. Current has expanded overseas and found its way into 60 million homes. During the 2008 election campaign and the preceding primaries, Current partnered with Twitter to air a hybrid program called “Hack the Debate,” in which viewers’ Tweets would appear on screen as candidates hashed out their differences. And the arrival of former MTV president Mark Rosenthal to the network has brought more changes, and new directions. In 2009, Current TV bucked its own short-doc format with a series of hour-long documentaries on musicians called Embedded. Last year, Will Wright, creator of video game The Sims, announced a show for Current called Bar Karma. It reads like gimmicky interactive TV: viewers, through the channel’s website, “would be able to submit story ideas, create storyboards based on rough outlines from professional producers, and vote for the ideas that are submitted.” Embedded and Bar Karma suggest a network split personality, bound together by their youth target.

Now comes Olbermann to split it all again.

Or bring it all together. The broadcaster has been known to help fledgling networks find a firm, recognizable, and successful identity. And then to mine some ratings out of it. It should be noted too, as Howard Kurtz points out, that Current is available in more homes than MSNBC was when Countdown launched. With Olbermann in front of the camera and behind, it’s tempting to see that Current TV might come full circle and turn into the liberal broadcaster many thought it would be before it even had a name. There are hints already: “I find myself in substantial agreement with the views I’ve heard Keith Olbermann express,” Gore said on the conference call.

But Olbermann’s amorphous new home has proven a slippery thing to predict and define. After all, who would have guessed that a network founded as a home for two-minute viewer-produced “pods” would launch a slick, professionally made series of hour-long music documentaries? And who would have thought that an innovative TV network launched by the former vice president of the United States would be for its first six years something of a non-entity? Certainly not many of the people writing about it at launch.

Nonetheless, there is something roundly disappointing about Current’s new hire. And here we’re also going to take the risk of ruminating on the slippery fortunes of Gore’s network. Snatching up Olbermann sends a signal that the network that, while always a little unsure of itself, was at least always pushing to be ahead of the curve, is settling on a formula that feels stale and done: the ideological cable channel. And led by a known ideological cable commodity to boot.

For all of its failings, Current was an early innovator. It sought to bring a Web 1.0 “blogging” ethos to television, which has always been a one-way medium. It was a great and a brave idea, but there were miscalculations. First, inviting user-viewers to submit homemade content did not account for the expectations people have of a TV network. YouTube-style lo-fi free-form “pods” work well online because there is no expectation of slickness; on TV, they seem incongruous next to the professionally produced programming either side of the dial. Current TV may have overcome this had they searched out content that was actually unique—if, as Brad Stone wrote, they really had tried to reinvent the concept of broadcast storytelling. But what did they ultimately do? They put out a call for YouTube videos, whose natural and only TV home might always be America’s Funniest Home Videos. Second, along with a number of other outlets—we’re looking at you, CNN—Current TV has been enamored with a false idea of what interactivity actually is. Having your Tweets flash up on screen is about as compelling and “participatory” as seeing yourself in the background of The Today Show. You’re not shifting the narrative, or becoming it, or really even sharing it. It’s a cold, cheap copy of the real interactivity you can have on the web all day, every day, un-directed and un-produced.

Current’s task was substantial. Gore and Hyatt essentially asked viewers to rethink the way they watch TV. And had they thought it through more fully, they might have convinced a few more to do just that. But cable networks run on money, not enthusiasm, and Current was never going to stay a striving would-be innovator forever. And so we have yesterday’s announcement. Current TV may still be unsure of what it is, but it’s beginning to acknowledge what it doesn’t want to be: a free-form user-generated network. The time has come to grab headlines again and some eyeballs along the way. By signing on Olbermann—who despite his Twitter habits is really one of the most visible and bombastic figures of the old media landscape ventures like Current were supposed to change—the network looks to be transitioning from undefined innovative mess to yet another news and commentary outfit. Albeit, with less corporate oversight.

We may not yet know what Current TV will be with a Keith Olbermann on deck. But I know what it is not: it’s not very interesting. And for a network that debuted with such diverse and promising expectations, that’s a shame.

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Joel Meares is a former CJR assistant editor. Tags: , , , ,