Why Keith Olbermann Makes Sense For Current TV

The New York Times (NYSE: NYT) is reporting that Keith Olbermann is joining Current TV, a small cable channel best known for its off-air founder, former Vice President Al Gore. This was about as unexpected as it gets, and yet it makes a lot of sense for both Olbermann and the network.

Olbermann is reportedly set to take a stake in the channel as well, which could make this more than just a typical TV talent deal. It could be more akin to the kind of pact Oprah Winfrey and Discovery Communications (NSDQ: DISCA) struck for her new cable network, OWN.

That said, the extent of Olbermann’s involvement on-air is not yet known; he could simply recreate his own MSNBC show for an hour every weeknight or try something more ambitious like Winfrey did, molding the entire channel’s sensibility in her own image.

Being an owner instead of an employee is also best for Olbermann and someone of his, shall we say, temperament, or risk chafing yet again under the reins of another corporate overlord (see MSNBC, Fox Sports, ESPN (NYSE: DIS), etc.). That said, we can all look forward to the inevitable headlines of Olbermann and Gore duking it out.

That aggravation would still be worth it to Gore because Olbermann gives Current just what it needs given that it has been a rather shapeless brand for its five years of existence. While the network has made modest efforts in its earliest days to come off like a grass-roots internet phenomenon with so-called “viewer curated” short-form content, Current is probably better known for what it isn’t but what everyone assumed it would be given Gore’s involvement: a liberal answer to Fox News Channel.

That programming mandate was successfully adopted by MSNBC largely on momentum singlehandedly delivered by Olbermann, though the channel has since built on his success with other on-air ideologues, like Rachel Maddow and Lawrence O’Donnell. Now Olbermann has the opportunity to let Current TV take back the identity it was always meant to have.

But there’s more Current can do than simply become me-too MSNBC (NSDQ: CMCSA). The network can make good on its long-aborted identity as a robust internet presence and put Olbermann to work online as well.
The domain names keitholbermannshow.com and theolbermannshow.com were snapped up just two days before he left MSNBC, presumably by representatives of Olbermann. It would be incredibly easy and cheap to replicate the kind of studio-based production Olbermann had at MSNBC and simply stream it online.

The terms of Olbermann’s settlement with MSNBC prevent him from going on the air for another 6-9 months. Broadcasting online is a great way to keep his personal brand relevant at a time in the country’s political climate–a new Republican Congress–where his already ample following will want him to be heard.

Putting Olbermann online would also help compensate for Current TV’s limited footprint in the U.S. With an estimated distribution of 70 million households, that’s tens of millions short of fully distributed channels like MSNBC.

We’ll know more tomorrow when Olbermann appears at a press conference at 11 a.m. ET.