Revisit: The (Re)Birth of a Network

Monday, September 2, 2013
[NOTE: this is a new feature that I'm hoping not to have to use that often that goes back to items that I previously posted on this blog and, through personal miscalculations or events totally out of my control, have been proven to no longer be accurate.  I couldn't decide between calling it a "retraction" or a "revision" so I opted for the "revisit" moniker instead.]

When I checked this blog's statistics over the weekend, I noticed that the post I did about Current TV back in March 2012 had 133 page views during the past week (August 25 - September 1) and 437 over the past month (August 1 - September 1).  At the time that I uploaded it, that cable news outlet was trying to posture itself as the 'progressive' alternative to MSNBC's left-leaning programming.  With a marque name on its payroll (the former MSNBC host Keith Olbermann), a solidifying prime-time lineup and simulcasts of popular liberal radio talk show hosts during the 6AM-noon time slots, it appeared that the station initially envisioned as a viewer-generated channel to specifically focus on the lucrative 18-34 market demographic could pose a serious challenge to the "Big Three" of cable news offerings.  The specific date of that posting was March 27th and it would be an event just three days later--unforeseen by me at that time--that would spell the beginning of the end of that challenge.

Keith Olbermann, formerly of MSNBC, preparing his Countdown program for Current TV viewers in June 2011. (Photo by Eileen Blass and courtesy of USA Today)

Wanting to inject instant credibility and media "buzz" into their small venture (at that time, Current TV was only available in 60 million of the 100 million households that had cable), former US vice president Al Gore (along with fellow co-owner, businessman Joel Hyatt) hired the then-recently released Olbermann in early February 2011 to a very lucrative deal ($50 million over five years and the title of "chief news officer" to exercise editorial control over his and other Current shows) to anchor a progressive-leaning prime-time lineup that would eventually bookend his 8-9PM time slot with established and new talent (Cenk Uygur of The Young Turks online program and former Michigan governor Jennifer Granholm, respectively).  His Countdown with Keith Olbermann show debuted on June 20th and appeared to have the same focus and passion that endeared him to his many fans earned during its 8-year run at the NBC cable outlet.  Because of the lack of other live hosts, his show was rerun five times a day until The Young Turks with Cenk Uygur began airing in December 2011 and The War Room with Jennifer Granholm debuted the following month.  In early March, it was announced that radio hosts Bill Press and Stephanie Miller would have their existing morning shows simulcast on the channel, leaving only the afternoon and overnight hours without original programming.   Ratings, although small when compared to the more well-established competitors, were improving around the time of my previous posting and it appeared that TV president David Bohrman's vision of an "independent, progressive perspective" channel might finally begin to emerge.

Keith Olbermann and Dave Letterman discussing the former Current TV host's termination the week prior on the April 3, 2012 edition of The Late Show. (Photo by Jeffrey R. Stabb and courtesy of CBS/AP)

Unfortunately, that all would change--for the worse--in the matter of about 72 hours.  Summoning my best Mr. Canter (Ben Stein) flat voice from an episode of The Wonder Years ("one minute, a thriving metropolis...the next minute - bingo, a hellish nightmare of death and devastation"), a monumental event occurred.  On March 30th, Current TV announced that they were "ending their relationship" with Olbermann (in regular-person speak, he was fired) because that arrangement was no longer reflecting the values of "respect, openness, collegiality and loyalty" to the channel's viewers.  The host immediately fired back, saying that the problems between the parties had existed for over a year and that his termination was purely an economic move to release them from their financial and contractual obligations with him.  Olbermann immediately hired a high-powered attorney (Patricia Glaser had helped Conan O'Brien obtain $45 million from NBC when he was replaced on The Tonight Show back in 2010) and a protracted legal battle ensued (it was eventually resolved in March of this year with neither party providing any details of the settlement).   Keith did have a few appearances on ABC News' This Week with George Stephanopoulos (I blogged about the April 22, 2012 show here) and on late-night talk shows but it wasn't until this past week that he began a new chapter in his television career with an hour-long eponymous sports talk show airing on ESPN2.  Although I haven't watched it (I'm normally in bed at that hour), the reviews that I have read say that it is has a lot of Countdown's flavor but he will intentionally stay away from political topics.

Olbermann's on-screen appearance went through some noticeable changes while hosting his show. (Screen captures courtesy of Current TV)

It sometimes take me a little longer than others to pick up on obvious clues but, in the 20/20 clarity of hindsight, the stresses and strains between Olbermann and his superiors were quite evident on screen in the months leading up to his ouster.  In December 2012, Mediaite ran a story about Keith's frustration with video technicians and the studio lighting during a show and how he responded to it for several shows afterwards (a candle and a black background instead of his usual set).  You can also see how his wardrobe changed over time.  When he debuted in June, Olbermann was nattily attired  in his perfunctory suit and tie ensemble but that garb changed over the months (as seen above) to no tie and, on occasion, to no jacket (he wore other less-formal garments over his white button-down shirt).  If you look closely, you will notice some facial hair growth in that photo where he lights the candle (The Huffington Post documented his goatee's short televised lifespan here).  

Olberman (center) was to be the point man for Current TV's 2012 election coverage...until he wasn't.

More public hints at this growing rift were seen during Current TV's 2012 presidential election coverage.  While he was undoubtedly the most recognized on-air face on the channel, Olbermann was noticeably absent during December Republican debates and their live broadcast in January 2012 of the Iowa caucuses, dubbed Politically Direct and hosted by Uygur, Granholm and Gore himself.  He released a scathing critique of that telecast, stating that he was "not given a legitimate opportunity to host under acceptable conditions", although a memorandum from Bohrman--his boss--to the Countdown staff said otherwise (and another piece by The Daily Beast's Rebecca Dana tells of Olbermann not responding to emails concerning his role in their Iowa coverage so contingency plans were made).  After his absence for the New Hampshire primary the following week, he returned to host a special Saturday edition of his show for the South Carolina primary (and, based upon the list of guest he had on that night, there was no crossflow between the it and the Politically Direct hosts).  By this time, the stage was probably set and Olbermann, after numerous absences due to vacation scheduling and medical issues, made his final Countdown appearance on the evening of March 28, 2012 (disgraced former New York governor Elliot Spitzer subbed for him the following night and was given his 8PM timeslot after the termination announcement was made public).  Because he was not given the same opportunity to "sign off" like he did at MSNBC when he abruptly left there in January 2011, he showed up on CBS's Late Show with David Letterman the following week to provide his side about his parting ways with Current TV (an edited version of his appearance is provided below).

Now lacking their "chandelier", Current TV had to scramble to try and hold onto its Olbermann fans as well as others who had been coming to that channel for their progressive political "fix".  Spitzer's Viewpoint show would serve as a "tourniquet" but it was not enough to prevent the hemorrhaging of viewers to the other cable news outlets, especially MSNBC, who stood the most to gain with Current's troubles (that channel's president, Phil Griffin, was reported to have given a boastful speech at a 2011 Christmas party about how their strong ratings have survived Olbermann's departure earlier that year).  In April 2012, California's lieutenant governor Gavin Newsom was given a weekly hour-long show that focused primarily on "the Golden State", a rare media gig for a sitting politician.  In September 2012, Joy Behar (of The View fame) joined the evening lineup of programs with a nightly talk show focusing on political issues.  Despite these additions, Current TV only averaged about 42,000 prime time viewers a night during 2012--a small fraction of what the other cable news stations were getting in a very busy political news year.  In October, it was widely speculated that the channel might fold or sell itself to another owner and the official death knell for Current TV was sounded in early January 2013 when Gore and Hyatt reached an agreement in principle with the Doha, Qatar-based media network, Al Jazeera.

Seeing an opportunity to break into the US media market, Qatar-based Al Jazeera purchased the flagging television channel for a reported $500 million payout.

This award-winning channel, seen in over 260 million homes in 130 countries, had been looking for a way to break into the lucrative US television market and Current TV's ratings misfortunes presented an opportunity to gain an instant distribution avenue into tens of millions of American homes.  Although the terms were undisclosed, the purchase price is believed to be in the $500 million range and the news of that sale triggered Time Warner Cable to immediately drop Current TV altogether from the viewing choices of 12 million customers (I tweeted about that immediate removal from my viewing guide with the photo shown below).  This action had been threatened by the cable provider since April of 2012 due to continued low ratings but, surprisingly, the digital channel it used to be on in the Dayton area has not been reassigned for any other programming since that move--one must assume that even its miniscule viewership totals would've been better than dead air.

With the vehicle now in place for the launching of Al Jazeera America (initially scheduled for mid- 2013), work began on transitioning between the two channels.  Immediate fallout was seen with the resignation of three hosts (Newsom, Spitzer and Granholm) but Behar and Uygur remained and were joined by liberal commentator John Fugelsang (a regular on The Stephanie Miller Show and part of her Sexy Liberal tour) to take over Spitzer's show.  As the date for the transfer grew closer, many off-camera Current TV employees were becoming worried about their continued employment with the new owners.  Of its 400 US-based positions, approximately 200 (including 50 in editorial roles) were absorbed into the new organization from the former one.  In early July 2013, the official start date for Al Jazeera America was announced (August 20th) and the existing programming started to be phased out prior to that date.  For any trivia buffs out there, Fugelsang hosted the last live show on August 15th and the final program aired was a repeat of the first one it showed back in August 2005 (the short documentary titled Jumper).  The new channel began operations at 3PM on August 20th with a preview special with regular news programming starting an hour later.  Unfortunately, Time Warner Cable has not added it to their lineup, leaving only satellite providers Direct TV and the Dish Network as my only options for viewing in my area (although I can stream the international English language station with my Roku media player, my Android devices, or on my computer). 

Joy Behar and her guests had a little too much fun with the ending of her final show on Current TV.

I will confess that I did not pay much attention to this whole subject since "the blackout" until I was recently reminded of it while listening to The Bill Press Show on my way in to work a few weeks ago (I stream it through an IHeartRadio app on my phone).  Both Press and Miller experienced healthy increases in their overall media visibility through the simulcasting arrangement they had with Current TV and they would also be impacted by this looming transfer.  On August 1st, it was announced that The Bill Press Show would be picked up by Free Speech TV and carried live on Direct TV and Dish Network (along with streaming at the show's own website as well as and their corresponding Facebook page) starting on September 3rd.  As of this posting, no official word on where Miller's show might migrate has been released.

 Former CNN anchor Joie Chen hosting Al Jazeera America's nightly news program America Tonight.

Although I should have learned my lesson about making predictions concerning the success (or failure) of media outlets, I will go out on that limb again and state for the record that Al Jazeera America, the hands-down winner in terms of journalistic quality and objectivity when compared to the other American cable news outlets (although recent revelations involving the current unrest in Egypt might make such an evaluation suspect), will not pose a serious threat in terms of viewership levels or in influencing national policy because of subjectivity among its target audience.  During the Iraq invasion and occupation, its Arabic service was heavily criticized for supposedly having an "anti-American" bias when they showed very graphic (but objective) images during its coverage of the US-led military operations.  They were also the first outlet to broadcast al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden's video defending his group's attacks against the United States on September 11, 2001 which many considered to be a propaganda coup for the terrorists.  In 2008, while covering events surrounding the 2008 US presidential campaign, they captured some very unflattering video footage of attendees at an Ohio rally for Sarah Palin that received more that 2 million views on YouTube and drew accusations from The Washington Post's Colbert I. King of helping to "stoke" anti-American sentiments overseas.  

Rightly or wrongly, this is the first image that comes to mind for many Americans when they hear the name "Al Jazeera" and it stands as a significant hurdle for that channel to overcome in their attempts to attract US viewers.

While they may have hired some big name journalists for this new endeavor (former CNN hosts Soledad O'Brian and Joie Chen, NBC News alums John Seigenthaler, David Shuster and Mike Viqueira are just a few of their acquisitions), Al Jazeera's name and reputation were "tarnished" within a significant portion of the American media and among members of the general public by those previous incidents.  Unfortunately for them, a good number in that group will probably never willfully access anything with that label based solely on principle for an awfully long time (and an example of this kind of politically motivated petulance in perpetuam was recently seen in Kentucky when a theater owning veteran refused to show the movie Lee Daniels' The Butler simply because Vietnam War protester Jane Fonda portrayed First Lady Nancy Reagan in that film).  As I stated earlier, I can still access their English service without a television but I have grown comfortable with that traditional medium for the transfer of news and information over the years and I wish I had the option of a local cable outlet instead of a digital stream.  In their absence, if I truly want to experience news at its finer levels, I can always turn on the BBC!

[UPDATE (9/5/2013):  technical issues have delayed Bill Press' debut on Free Speech TV until September 9th.  I also forgot to include another location to view his program:, a YouTube repository page that posts full episodes and short clips from the show (I believe I heard that they do live streaming but I'm not logged on my computer at that time of the morning to verify it--I'm usually listening to him on my phone).  On the subject of former Current TV on-air personalities, I just saw two--Fugelsang and Granholm--on back-to-back shows on MSNBC--it appears that both landed successfully after their "leaps" from their previous gigs.]

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