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.