Can Current TV Reinvent Itself – Using Lessons Learned From Keith Olbermann?

Even without the hot-headed Keith Olbermann, Current TV President David Bohrman has built an 11-hour news network in less than a year

Last Updated: August 7, 2012 @ 11:01 AM

Keith Olbermann hosted the sole political talk show airing on Current TV when David Bohrman took over as network president last August. 

Now close to a year later, Olbermann is long gone, but Bohrman (pictured below) has transformed Current into a full-time news network built around Olbermann-like hosts — brash, intelligent and liberal.

Though the network remains ratings-challenged, especially as compared to the triumvirate of cable news heavyweights (Fox News, MSNBC and CNN), Current now airs original politics-centric programming nine hours of the day. By the start of September it will be 10, and this fall it will hit 11.

Its diverse troupe of hosts includes comedian John Fugelsang, former politicians like Eliot Spitzer and Jennifer Granholm (both Democrats), new media figure Cenk Uygur and longtime TV/radio personalities Joy Behar, Bill Press and Stephanie Miller.

Yet one thing ties most of them together — personality.

“One of the problems that cable news has — and especially a problem that liberals have — is that there’s no sense of humor,” Bohrman said in an interview with TheWrap. “TV often takes itself too seriously.”

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The proof that Bohrman means it? The hiring last week of Fugelsang (left), who after announcing his new show last week told TheWrap that Jesus was a “radical liberal.” The stand-up comic and former host of "America's Funniest Home Videos" will aim to find a happy medium between Jon Stewart, Bill Maher and more traditional hosts.  

Also read: Current TV’s Politicians as Pundits: Gavin Newsom, Jennifer Granholm Defend Themselves

Nor will Behar, a co-host of “The View,” shy away from speaking her mind. Her show, which debuts Sept. 4, is titled “Say Anything.” Bohrman wanted to offer Behar (below, with President Obama on "The View") a fresh start after HLN canceled her eponymous show at the end of 2011.

“As that show went on, I think HLN began to put pressure on her to do the Natalee Holloway, Casey Anthony stories,” Bohrman said. “That was just not working.”

Over time, most of Bohrman’s show hosts have told TheWrap that they can say whatever they want on air — and that is an attitude Bohrman purports to endorse. There is no teleprompter for Uygur’s show, "The Young Turks," which airs at 7 p.m.

“If I could have my wish I’d banish [the teleprompter] from all of TV,” Bohrman said. “Programs are better without it. If you get smart people that have something to say that know where they’re going, TV is better. The crutch of the prompter is a curse.”

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That unconventional attitude mirrors his unusual lineup of shows.

In the morning, Miller and Press host their radio shows as usual, but with a camera in the room for a "voyeuristic" quality. Miller, host of the “Sexy Liberal Comedy Tour,” took the stage at a breakfast last Wednesday in a sports coat just barely concealing her cleavage.

At night, Bohrman has employed Uygur, who built an online following as the leader of the "Young Turks," a band of political, social and cultural commentators. He left MSNBC after a dispute over the 6 p.m. slot and prides himself on attacking both sides of the political aisle.

At 9 p.m. is Granholm, a well-respected former governor of Michigan who joined the network in January. Few would describe her as a natural entertainer, but she is unconventional for that reason — she had little media experience before taking the job.

Also readJoy Behar to Host Show on Current TV

And then there is Eliot Spitzer, the former New York governor who resigned amid a 2008 sex scandal but landed a show on CNN that lasted about a year. CNN canceled it as it struggled to gain traction with viewers.

Spitzer worked in the  Manhattan district attorney's office in the late 1980s and early 1990s pursuing organized crime. He later served as the state's attorney general, taking on securities fraud and white-collar crime — a regular subject of his new show given the widespread financial malfeasance of the past several years.

(At left, "Young Turks'" Cenk Uygur.)

“Spitzer is doing something no one else is,” Fugelsang told TheWrap. “Once you get over Eliot Spitzer having a show, you realize he’s taking on Wall Street like nobody else.”

Spitzer is one of three hosts who once held a show at a cable news behemoth, joining Behar (HLN) and Uygur (MSNBC). Bohrman is himself a CNN refugee and has turned to other veterans of the industry for senior executive positions. Shelley Lewis, formerly of CNN and PBS, oversees programming, while Terry Baker, alum of Fox Business Network, CNBC and CNN, handles production.

As for the programming the day's other 15 hours, Current retains a mix of reruns, its Vanguard documentary series and other hour-long unscripted programming.

Current has built out this lineup without a real home base to build from. Its headquarters remains in San Francisco, but its shows film in Los Angeles and New York, which is home to the bulk of the marketing and sales teams. Los Angeles has the control room overseeing eight hours of daily programming.

Also readNew Current TV Host: 'My Show Will Focus on the Hypocrisy of the Christian Right'

“We’ve got this multi-city dispersion,” Bohrman said. “It was the way to get us up and running but I’d like to build a real home for us so we can do this on our own facilities the right way.”

After joking that his office was Virgin America Airlines, Bohrman said New York is the most likely destination for a new home base.

Once that is established, Bohrman will have to pursue a strategy for ratings growth. The network, which is in far fewer homes than Fox News, MSNBC or CNN, has the low ratings to prove it. Executives at those three networks are dismissive of Current for that very reason, but declined to comment to TheWrap.

Although Current is guarded with its ratings figures, Olbermann reportedly gave the network a  boost. But even the audience for his show, “Countdown,” paled in comparison to those he drew while in primetime at MSNBC, which sometimes topped 1 million.

“I’d like to have more people watching, but that will come,” Bohrman said. “People’s viewing habits take a while to change. We don’t have 25 sister networks to promote the hell out of our programming.”

Bohrman believes the quality of the shows and his outspoken anchors will do the trick. He noted that the network gets an “inordinate amount of attention” given its size.

Some of that is because of the backing of former Vice President Al Gore, Current's co-founder and chairman, but a large part of that coverage came from its dispute with Olbermann.

After months of private disagreement over election coverage, production facilities and vacation time – much of which spilled into the press –the network fired the controversial host at the end of March.

Both sides then filed suits against one another claiming breach of contract, and both listed a litany of misbehavior. Those suits are ongoing.

In spite of that, Bohrman does not seem bitter – at least publicly. The network he has built over the past year owes a debt of gratitude to Olbermann.

“Having Keith at Current was hugely transformative and important because what it set the beacon for Joel Hyatt and Al Gore to set the direction,” Bohrman said.

“Regardless of all the other noise, that’s the track we’re on and what we’ve delivered. We’re now at 12 hours and that’s because of Keith’s show. The legal issues, we’ll let other people deal with that.”