Keith Olbermann and Current: What Went Wrong? (Opinion)

And what will happen to each? Bet on Olbermann to be around longer.
Wesley Mann

Well, you couldn’t call it unexpected.

Keith Olbermann’s brief, troubled stint at Current is over, as the fledgling channel that needed a savior has fired him and Olbermann, in turn, has threatened legal action.

In the meantime, Eliot Spitzer takes over. If you can’t see this as an unbelievably funny bit on 30 Rock, then you’re just not trying.

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Now, while it’s all left to the lawyers and media columns (and the tabloids for a bit), two things are patently clear:

Olbermann made a mistake in going to Current. And Current, almost inconceivably, is even more irrelevant than before. It’s a cable channel so dead that it makes OWN look like HBO.

At least in the dueling statements between both parties, Olbermann fessed up to his lack of judgment. “For now, it is important only to again acknowledge that joining them was a sincere and well-intentioned gesture on my part, but in retrospect a foolish one. That lack of judgment is mine and mine alone, and I apologize again for it.”

OK, then. Apology accepted.

As for Current, founders Joel Hyatt and Al Gore co-signed a statement that said in part: “Current was also founded on the values of respect, openness, collegiality, and loyalty to our viewers. Unfortunately these values are no longer reflected in our relationship with Keith Olbermann and we have ended it. 
We are moving ahead by honoring Current's values.”

And touting Spitzer as its flag-bearer of values and respect and openness.

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Um, yeah, except for that whole Client 9 problem with the prostitutes and whatnot. In its statement, Current refers to Spitzer first as “former New York governor” and then later as “Governor Spitzer,” delicately but decisively leaving out the fact he resigned that position in disgrace.

Ah, bygones. Let’s not worry about how Current wants to project itself (mostly as the voice of progressive America, which, if true, only damns progressives as either a group of about 67 people or the least loyal bunch of activists on record, given the paltry Current ratings).

Let’s also not worry about Olbermann. He’s got money. He’s got talent. And he will surface somewhere (insert “for a limited time only” joke here). The fact is, this was a bad marriage from the beginning. It’s something I wrote about for THR when he made the announcement and believed all along. There’s no joy or surprise in having that validated. It just seemed like a given.

(For full transparency, I’ve covered and been a fan of Olbermann’s work for many years, starting in his ESPN days, and through the course of time we’ve become friends. When I asked him today what his next move was, he said, “I have two important baseball auctions Sunday,” referencing two fantasy baseball leagues he's in -- including one I’m in with him.)

I’m assuming that after our NL-only auction, Olbermann will be preoccupied with the legal action he referenced in his statement about Current. Beyond the lawyering bits -- discussions of which bore me to tears -- there’s the very real issue of where he goes next. Now, let’s disabuse those who think he’s unemployable given his track record of going someplace and then leaving not too long after, burned bridges and accusations littering the highway behind him.

That reputation of his hasn’t stopped anyone yet. And it won’t in the future. Olbermann’s delivered ratings wherever he’s been -- most recently his defining stint at MSNBC and then Current. If you want to equate him to a diva wide receiver in the NFL (or quarterback or whatever), that’s fine. If you’re a sports fan, you know that those divas always find a home and always get paid.

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If anything, I hope his ill-advised stop at Current is a wake-up call that his talents are better served in high-profile settings and not some grandiose plan to invigorate or revolutionize what amounts to a cable startup. As a fan of his, I watched those early shows on Current fairly regularly but, like so many other people, just forgot he was there or forget where the hell Current was.

It would be nice to see him pop up, once this mess is settled, somewhere familiar. Showtime, HBO, Comedy Central -- wherever. Since I personally loathe all politics, I would like to see him back at ESPN – and boy, could that increasingly useless barge of blather use his presence.

But yeah, I know, that’s not going to happen. On the other hand, Fox is contemplating a national sports channel to challenge ESPN, and if you think Olbermann-Fox Part Deux is a nightmare scenario that couldn't possibly come true -- that Olbermann and Bill O'Reilly would sooner star in a buddy comedy -- then I'm afraid your cynicism is clouding your understanding of business.

As for Current, this could very well be its endgame. In the industry, the death knell was already ringing, with rumors that Current was low on money and possibly even a candidate to be sold. If Olbermann was Current’s Hail Mary pass for relevance, what now?

Spitzer? Bill Press? Somebody named Stephanie Miller? Come on now. There is no turnaround in that lineup.

I remember the day Gore and Hyatt launched Current, talking (for the first time) about how it was going to revolutionize television -- mostly with viewer-generated content. That idea was a flat-out bust. Do you know why? Because there were no viewers.

If there are lawsuits in this mess, and if the grievances and accusations in them are ever released, we may find out why the dream imploded. Until then, Olbermann is out, and Current is arguably in its final stretch of proving ground and relevancy. We’re in an election year. Progressives have a lot to say about President Obama and the future direction of the Democratic Party (I’m assuming you understand that Current is not Fox News, yes?). So, if this coming election, with its magnetizing (and polarizing) issues, doesn’t give Current a significant boost in ratings, all that’s left will be waiting for the lights to go out -- again.


Twitter: @BastardMachine