August 19, 2022

At New Network, Olbermann Sets Sights on MSNBC

Challenging MSNBC, which has a stable lineup of left-leaning hosts, will be Current TV, where Keith Olbermann will start anchoring the 8 p.m. hour, his former time slot on MSNBC. Rather audaciously, Mr. Olbermann will try to draw viewers away from MSNBC and to his new home, where he wants to add more hours of like-minded hosts.

Already, Mr. Olbermann seems to have succeeded in one respect: in creating a robust marketplace for liberal television talent. Since he left in January, MSNBC has signed prominent contributors like Eugene Robinson, the Washington Post columnist, to new long-term contracts, in some cases staving off Current’s attempts to poach them. MSNBC has also tried out new hosts, like Cenk Uygur, an Internet talk show host who has become the channel’s 6 p.m. anchor. The channel’s total ratings are holding steady so far this year.

Mr. Olbermann, meanwhile, has persuaded some boldface names to appear on Current, where he is recreating his MSNBC show, “Countdown.” His huge challenge will be persuading viewers

to come too, given that the channel is generally only watched only by tens of thousands of viewers at any given time and is high on the channel lineup in most markets. He anticipates that the early viewership totals will be low; he said on a conference call with reporters Friday, “We’re in this for the long haul.”

Few of Mr. Olbermann’s producers or regular guests from MSNBC are joining him on the new show. His entreaties to MSNBC employees sparked something of a bidding war, according to people involved in contract negotiations who insisted on anonymity to avoid distressing executives at MSNBC or Current.

“The threat of Keith’s new show meant that MSNBC had to spend a little bit of extra money — and Phil was willing to do that,” one of the people said, referring to Phil Griffin, the president of MSNBC.

Guest bookings are important for cable news channels because viewers come to recognize and expect regular guests with opinions on the left and the right. The channels pay some guests — called contributors or analysts — for exclusive access to them, and also nurture new and influential voices in politics.

MSNBC has effectively created a new row of these voices, mostly on the left, just as the much-higher-rated Fox News Channel has done, mostly on the right.

MSNBC sought this spring to renew the contributor contracts of Mr. Robinson; Ezra Klein, a blogger for The Washington Post; and Christopher Hayes, a writer for The Nation. In an interview, Mr. Griffin declined to talk about contracts in detail, citing his parent company’s policy, but he said that the new deals were done because the contracts happened to be approaching end dates, not because of any threat from Current.

“I wanted to keep them because we have a strong platform, and they wanted to be on this platform,” he said.

Guest bookings are also important because popular guests can become full-time hosts. Mr. Hayes, for instance, is a frequent substitute for Lawrence O’Donnell and for Rachel Maddow, two MSNBC anchors. Now MSNBC is developing a show for Mr. Hayes. Mr. Uygur was groomed the same way.

“There’s a whole new batch of young people we’ve brought in, because we want to keep feeding our system,” Mr. Griffin said, naming as one example Alex Wagner, a writer for The Huffington Post.

Mr. Olbermann has his own liberal voices to nurture on Current, like the muckraking Rolling Stone journalist Matt Taibbi, the law professor Jonathan Turley, and Heather McGhee, who directs the Washington office of the research group Demos, three of the contributors whom Current announced on Friday.

But it is unclear how often the contributors will appear, or how many are being paid. The payments for a liberal filmmaker, Michael Moore, who was named as a contributor in April, will be given to charity. Ken Burns, another filmmaker, told The Baltimore Sun that he was surprised to see his name in that announcement as well; Mr. Olbermann has “been a friend for a long time,” Mr. Burns said. “And when he moved, I said, ‘Oh, I’ll come and do it.’ And I think that’s what it is.”

Mr. Burns said that since he lives in New Hampshire, “I don’t know how I become a contributor.”

A Current spokeswoman declined to comment on individual contracts, but said that “the vast majority” of the contributors have formal agreements.

David Carr contributed reporting.

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