Keith Olbermann, best known for his stints as an anchor on ESPN’s “SportsCenter” and as host of a nightly news show on MSNBC, has joined Current TV as its Chief News Officer and will resume hosting “Countdown” on that network starting Monday.
Updated: September 18, 2011 12:16AM
NEW YORK — Keith Olbermann is showing off his office to a visitor.
It’s in the cozy production and editorial headquarters from where, starting Monday, he will originate “Countdown With Keith Olbermann” on Current TV every weeknight. Among its amenities is a desk chair he used to have at MSNBC, a chair he says once belonged to Brian Williams that he somehow kept after exiting in January.
As he is quick to point out, “Countdown” is only the opening act of his run at Current.
“The idea that it’s just me coming over and putting a show on in the middle of this network is correct,” he says, “but temporary.”
As a more enduring plan, Olbermann, 52, has empire-building in mind. He has Current’s prime-time landscape, not just a nightly hour, in his sights.
Hobbling with the aid of a retractable cane (he is nursing a stress fracture in his left foot), he leads the way to another office already equipped with two chairs and lowers his 6-foot-3-inch frame into one of them. He explains that “Countdown” will be much the same show it became at MSNBC during its eight-year evolution.
“Countdown” was a progressive refuge and a reliable rebuke to rival Fox News Channel pundits where Olbermann would chronicle the day’s events, interview guests, deliver blistering commentaries in filigreed prose and wrap the whole package with literate trappings and pop-culture wit.
It was the most popular show on MSNBC, averaging more than a million viewers, and it served as the prime-time template for a left-leaning lineup at a network that, until “Countdown,” had been plagued by an identity crisis.
Then, on the night of Jan. 21, Olbermann told his viewers he was leaving. He said, a bit cryptically, that “there were many occasions, particularly in the last 21/2 years, where all that surrounded the show — but never the show itself — was just too much for me.”
Five months later, he wants to assure his fans that the new “Countdown,” back in its customary 7 p.m. time slot, will pick up where the old one left off, but “without all those limitations on me,” to which he furnishes his own wry comeback: “You weren’t free to say whatever you wanted to back then?!”
Suffice it to say there was ongoing friction between the brash Olbermann and his NBC bosses — just as there had been at earlier jobs as far back as Olbermann’s star-making, often stormy turn as a “SportsCenter” anchor at ESPN in the 1990s.
The problem for a TV journalist, as he sees it, is systemic with ever-growing media consolidation by conglomerates whose myriad other business interests can potentially clash with editorial independence. Just this past January, Comcast Corp., the giant cable operator, acquired a controlling stake in Olbermann’s already huge former employer, NBCUniversal. But he sees the dilemma as spanning the media landscape.
“It became evident to me,” he says, “that at some point there would be a critical mass reached when I would not be able to continue to work anywhere in that structure. They just would not be in the position to have someone as risky to their other business interests as I am.”
Last fall, he began mulling options for a berth outside such media colossuses as NBCUniversal, Walt Disney Co., News Corp. and Time Warner. And going further, he figured, “There had to be at least one television network looking to identify or reidentify itself that had a news and public affairs base” — a network that would be game to take a successful cable-TV host and build itself around him.
Among possible destinations, Olbermann says he thought of Current, the privately held network co-founded in 2005 by former Vice President Al Gore and Joel Hyatt. Although available in 60 million homes after just five years, it has struggled to redefine itself after ditching its original concept as the go-to site for viewer-generated short videos, a great idea explosively pre-empted with the advent of YouTube.
Current has persevered nonetheless and been honored for the investigative newsmagazine “Vanguard,” about to begin its fifth season. Even so, the network operates on the margins with a minuscule audience. It needs an attention-getter — someone to goad viewers into finding Current on their dial, and, if it’s not there (roughly one-third of the nation’s TV homes still can’t get it), demanding it from their cable provider.
“What Current has lacked is some sort of centerpiece,” says Olbermann. “Both my experience and my ego tell me I can be that centerpiece.”
Al Gore must have thought so, too. The day after Olbermann left MSNBC, he heard from Gore. The offer included not just salary but also equity in the company.
“And then,” says Olbermann, “we made up this crazy title of Chief News Officer,” which, despite its tinge of ironic grandiosity, represented a blend of trust and responsibility that appealed to Olbermann.
His deal with Current was unveiled Feb. 8.
“We’re independent, and that’s what Keith prizes,” Gore said at the time. “We are not part of a conglomerate. We don’t answer to anyone but ourselves.”
And with Olbermann’s arrival, he added, “We are poised for a real breakout.”
The breakout, according to Olbermann, will extend far beyond “Countdown.”
“We’re starting with this show, but we will be expanding,” he says. “More than likely, we will have a second prime-time show within a year, maybe sooner than that.”
Maybe Olbermann will find himself another Rachel Maddow, the liberal host who clicked with viewers on MSNBC after Olbermann brought her aboard for a companion show to his at that network.
Sure, nods Olbermann. “Or conceivably,” he says suggestively, “I might just find the same Rachel Maddow. You never know.”
He also looks to place the scrappy “Vanguard” correspondents at the heart of the network’s new emphasis on newsgathering.
“I think we’ll become a very important home base for independent, progressive thinking on television,” says Current CEO Mark Rosenthal. “Our goal is to get every last one of the viewers who watched Keith before — and then some. And I think we can do it.”