EXCLUSIVE: This week there was a rift. Then tonight what looked like an outright win for Keith Olbermann over his current employer Current TV. But now the rift is back on after the channel is “doing a complete 180,” sources tell me. Here’s what happened: Earlier tonight Olbermann was assured by Current TV that it was giving him “carte blanche” to plan and program and book participants for the entire 4-hour block of New Hampshire GOP presidential primary coverage this coming Tuesday night. And that wasn’t all. “It can be said that Current has seen the light. It can be assumed that Keith will have control over election coverage going forward,” one of my sources assured me. But later tonight Current TV changed its mind and now is refusing to give Olbermann the time slot. Stay tuned. I have a feeling this is going to seesaw throughout the weekend between Current TV and its chief news officer/controversial liberal commentator.
It’s no coincidence that the channel’s waffling follows lousy reviews of what the Internet pundits called Current’s fiasco coverage of the Iowa Caucus on Tuesday night. It featured Current founder Al Gore as well as two new Current hires, former Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm, and former MSNBC host Cenk Uygur. Now Current had a unique opportunity to make a splash by having the former VP as part of its election mix. So the channel should have ensured that Gore was surrounded by a deep bench. But one especially vicious media tweet described the channel’s coverage as looking like cable access with worse audio. Insiders put the blame for the low production values and even lower professionalism onto Current TV co-founder Joel Hyatt who took over after last month’s executive shakeup in which CEO Mark Rosenthal abruptly resigned. Granholm, for instance, has never been a TV host before (although she does have an acting background). Uygur isn’t a household name (although he was part of radio’s liberal Young Turks). And in recent weeks the set of Countdown With Keith Olbermann has experienced lighting blackouts while the show was on the air. “The change of management exacerbated the problems,” one source tells me.
On the other hand, Olbermann can only be characterized as an infamous crank on a channel with a miniscule audience. Let’s not forget that he’s stalked off a succession of channels (ESPN, MSNBC) or been fired from others (Fox Sports). His January 2011 exit from MSNBC made headlines because of its dramatic back-and-forth. Then six months later Olbermann was brought to Current TV as the host of his own weeknight political commentary program, Countdown With Keith Olbermann. For a while it seemed like a good fit. Then the channel broached the idea of having Olbermann lead the network’s 2012 team election coverage. Seems reasonable enough, right? But Olbermann wanted to have Countdown run per usual at 8 PM and cover the Iowa caucus results live within his show.
“Keith wasn’t interested in what they were proposing because he decided it was decidedly inconsistent with the visual aesthetic and editorial judgment that one would find on such a signature program with a network. It also was important to Keith to make the decision about whom else would participate in the show. Current wanted a certain lineup,” one of my insiders tells me. “So Keith turned down their offer to participate in that election coverage. He’s always been willing to do that election coverage if it could be done correctly.”
Then on Tuesday when the caucus coverage was to begin, a Current TV memo went out saying: ”There will be NO stand-alone Countdown tonight. For those of you at work who might be preparing a program, I apologize your managers did not communicate this to you.” The memo added that “Keith was asked to be the sole anchor and executive producer of our primary and caucus coverage. He declined.” Olbermann for his part said he was “not given a legitimate opportunity to host under acceptable conditions”.
So then the dispute came down to an interpretation of the wording in Olbermann’s contract and who controlled the time slot: Current or Olbermann’s show. By Wednesday, Olberman was “reviewing his legal options” after Current preempted his Tuesday night show to cover the Republican caucuses. This control issue was a big deal for Olbermann when he left MSNBC and joined Current. But Current still believes it has the right to shape its coverage of special events. If only the channel would make up its mind.