Keith Olbermann Is a 'Game Changer' for Current TV, Says Exec

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The former "Countdown" host joked that network execs closed the deal quickly so "[I could] be trotted out on stage like the two-headed calf that talks."

NEW YORK -- "You are not a cable television network until you have had a big hit show," said Joel Hyatt, executive vice chairman and co-founder of Current Media.

Current executives are banking that Keith Olbermann will put the network on the map, transforming it from a little-watched redoubt for issues-oriented documentaries to a competitor on the cable landscape.

Speaking at paidContent's annual media conference here, Hyatt added: "For Current, it's a complete game changer."

The deal came together very quickly with Al Gore making the first phone call to Olbermann one day after his final Countdown aired on MSNBC. Time was of the essence, said Olbermann, since the network wanted to use him as a centerpiece of its upfront pitch to advertisers in early February.

"We wanted this to be all set by then," said Olbermann, so that "[I could] be trotted out on stage like the two-headed calf – that talks."

Olbermann's show is set to bow in May. It will air at 8 p.m., the same timeslot as his MSNBC show and where Fox News' Bill O'Reilly pulls in over 3 million viewers a night.

Current averaged 18,000 viewers in primetime for fourth quarter 2010. It's in about 70 million homes, but it is in channel Siberia on digital cable tiers.

The network was started in 2005 by Hyatt and former Vice President Gore as a TV/web hybrid stocked by user-generated content. And Hyatt promised to make Olbermann "ubiquitous" with a flurry of multi-platform offerings.

"We're going to take Keith Olbermann's brand, which you only know as a one-hour television show, and we're going to put his brand on every platform conceivable to man," said Hyatt, stressing that the multi-platform Olbermann content would be "different" and "additive," not "duplicative."

Already, Olbermann has started the FOK News Channel, where he posts three blogs a day, but no video. An acronym for "Friends of Keith," it was deliberately chosen because it limns Fox News Channel, a perennial target of Olbermann's commentary. The domain name and Twitter account were registered on the fly by his manager, Michael Price, after a very brief conversation between the two men last January.

"I was getting into an elevator and I said, if I lose you, I'll call you back,'" said Olbermann. "By the time I got out of the elevator, he had registered both of those. So it literally had three minutes of planning behind it."

Olbermann has also taken on a management role at Current – this after many well-publicized imbroglios with multiple former managers. He'll serve as Current's chief news officer. And he said he's currently in the thick of hiring a staff for his show, which will be based in New York. Asked by paidContent editor and executive vp Staci Kramer why he picked Current rather than building an entrepreneurial venture, Olbermann said: "I didn't want to go to an environment where I had to build everything myself."

"When we get the show on the air, we expect to have that show fully running and fully operational and fully competitive in its field. This is not a start-up operation. Our show will be starting in a new environment. To say we're going to go off and start the FOK News Channel with one cable system in Topeka – this is not starting from scratch by any stretch of the imagination."

Olbermann's non-compete clause in his MSNBC exit deal precluded him from going to a network considered a competitor, such as CNN or a cable sports channel. But one of the selling points for Current, he said, was that he would be free from management "interference."

"We are in a time when corporations are looking at news products as very valuable resources that need to be maximized," said Olbermann. "And one of the ways you maximize them is smoothing off all the rough edges and the controversy and the reporting essentially."