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Keith Olbermann Confirms He'll Host Nightly Primetime News Show on Current TV

Keith Olbermann_
David S. Holloway/Getty Images

He will have an equity stake in the company and also serve as its chief news officer.

UPDATED: Since Current TV was founded nearly six years ago by former vice president Al Gore and entrepreneur Joel Hyatt, the network has had no discernable personality to distinguish it from the cacophony of cable channels. But all that could change this spring when Keith Olbermann – the liberal firebrand who helped propel MSNBC out of obscurity – becomes the new face of Current TV.

“Keith’s arrival is enormously significant,” said Hyatt during a conference call with reporters on Tuesday. Olbermann will host a primetime news and commentary program on the network in a deal that also gives him an equity stake in the company and anoints him Current TV’s chief news officer.

Current has 60 million U.S. subscribers and another 15 million in the U.K., Ireland, Italy and South Africa. But in the U.S., it is relegated to channel Siberia on digital cable tiers, unlike cable news networks including CNN, Fox News, CNBC and MSNBC, which are more widely distributed on analogue tiers.  

Analysts predict that Olbermann will have a huge impact on Current’s ratings, which currently barely register at 23,000 in primetime. When Olbermann left MSNBC -- which has 95 million subscribers -- his show was averaging a little more than 1 million viewers a night.

“Keith’s arrival is significant in what we believe will be our ability to gain more distribution,” said Hyatt. “It is obviously significant in terms of the fans and viewership that he will bring to our network, many for the first time. That of course will translate into ad sales revenues that will significantly increase when Keith Olbermann’s show premieres on Current TV. So in every respect the business implications of this to Current are huge.”

Gore described Olbermann as “advertiser-friendly.” Olbermann will address advertisers directly at Current’s upfront presentation Wednesday in New York, when the network will unveil additional programming changes.

The format of the show is still being worked out. But Olbermann pointedly stressed that his Current program would be “free” and “independent” from “corporate interference.”

Olbermann left MSNBC last month after eight years at the network and frequent clashes with management, most recently last November when he was suspended for two days for making undisclosed campaign contributions to three congressional Democrats (among them Arizona congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords). (Current allows campaign contributions as long as they are disclosed.)

But Olbermann brushed off suggestions that his remarks were directed at his most recent employer: NBC Universal.

“I don't want to imply that there were massive corporate forces working against individual stories,” he said. “We’re talking in terms of the industry as a whole. None of this should be considered directed towards any of my nine previous full-time employers. There’s nothing wrong with people making money and there’s nothing wrong with corporations being involved in … covering news. But that’s provided there is also an avenue in which those purely market forces are not the deciding factors in what we’re doing here. My argument would be that, without getting too highfalutin, we’re talking about a larger purpose.”

Current was conceived as an integrated online and television service and Olbermann also will have a robust web presence, though he and Current executives declined to be specific about what exactly that would be.

Olbermann did say that he is not currently in talks to expand his footprint beyond Current and that the deal with Current came together quickly after his exit from MSNBC last January.

His separation agreement with NBC Universal left him few options, sources say. It includes the compulsory non-compete clause, which prevents him from being on television for several months. But it also stipulates that he cannot go to work for an MSNBC competitor. Olbermann would not comment on particulars of that agreement.

"Today is about going forward and the great things we’re going to get to do at Current," he said, adding that his show "will be for all intents and purposes an improved, amplified and stronger version of the show that I just did at my previous network."

Gore praised Olbermann as one of the “truly unique” and “truly unfettered voices on television.”

“Everyone at Current is extremely excited and honored that Keith Olbermann has selected Current TV as the new home for his exciting, independent voice and his thought-provoking commentary,” said Gore.

Current has long been a repository of independent documentary work -- which has garnered accolades and awards if not wide viewership.

In fact, the network’s most infamous project was one that was never seen. When Current journalists Laura Ling and Euna Lee were apprehended by North Korean authorities in 2009, their plight garnered international attention and spurred a diplomatic rescue mission by former president Bill Clinton.

But if Current has always been closely associated with Gore -- a Democratic party stalwart and recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize for his work on climate change – the addition of Olbermann as not just one of the network’s personalities but also the executive in charge of its news coverage more firmly plants Current on the left side of the political aisle.

Gore, who described himself as a “recovering politician” said: “Speaking personally, I find myself in substantial agreement with the views that I’ve heard Keith Olbermann express.”