The Wannabe Network

Article excerpt

Byline: Rebecca Dana

Al Gore's Current TV is remaking itself as the anti-Fox. Can an election year, Occupy Wall Street, and Keith Olbermann propel it out of oblivion?

It was early November when tensions between Keith Olbermann and Al Gore escalated into a crisis at Current TV. There had been a short honeymoon after Gore, the channel's co-owner, had handed the notoriously temperamental anchor a reported $10 million salary and equity stake in February of last year, but the relationship soured quickly. Now, just five months after Olbermann's show Countdown had resurfaced on Current, it looked as if he might walk away.

Accustomed to the flashy graphics and slick broadcasts of MSNBC, Olbermann balked at the cheap sets and lo-fi production values at the scrappy Current. Ensconced in his New York office, the star ignored emails from the network's West Coast executives. He wanted them to invest more on the technical side, and he wanted more authority in other areas of the network, including personnel decisions. He was also upset about his car service. Gore and his partners had shelled out for a star; now, it seemed, the star owned them.

By November, network executives were exhausted by his antics, according to a source familiar with the inner workings of Current. Olbermann was implacable. Executives feared an ugly, public fight.

The prospects were potentially ruinous for Current. After it had struggled for six years as an assertively nonpartisan news network, baffling critics and going largely unnoticed by viewers, Current's founders, Gore and partner Joel Hyatt, had finally come up with what could be a game-changing plan: to reinvent the station as a 24-hour-a-day, seven-day-a-week liberal cable-news outlet, a bastion for progressive ideas and politics on television, a way to harness and influence the Democratic Party--in short, as Hyatt says, the "anti-Fox."

The timing was perfect. Current's liberal baptism was coming at the beginning of a tabloid-ready presidential election--just the conditions that had launched Roger Ailes's Fox News out of the 2000 race as the ballsiest and most powerful voice in political media. The network's natural audience had been energized into a national movement in Occupy Wall Street, with young people sleeping in the streets and yelling about government corruption, industrial greed, and social inequality. At the center of Current's rebirth was supposed to be Keith Olbermann.

Which is why, mere weeks before the Iowa caucuses, the former vice president found himself prostrate before his celebrity anchor, begging him not to go, according to the source. Internally, network executives fretted over what the former vice president should say to Olbermann to keep him onboard.

Presented with this account, Current president David Bohrman told Newsweek, "Keith is a unique guy." Olbermann did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

Gore's company politicking, plus the intervention of lawyers for both sides, seems to have worked. Olbermann--for now--is sitting tight. Current's big media plan, hastily drawn up after the network managed to hire Olbermann, is quickly sliding into place. What it's after is nothing short of the holy grail of left-wing politics. And Al Gore, who knows what it's like to be this close to triumph, is determined not to fail.

The only problem: how do you build a television network, let alone a political movement, around a person who won't even take your calls?

The story of Current TV is, in one version, the story of Al Gore trying to deny his fate. In 2004 Gore and Hyatt, a lawyer and Democratic politician and now Current's CEO, bought a cable channel. They kept their plans secret, but there was only one obvious way to go: capitalize on Gore's popularity to launch a fearsome left-wing news outlet focused on the environment and the vice president's other passion projects.

What debuted as Current TV a year later left viewers and critics scratching their heads. …