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Current TV: Can Olbermann's New Network Find a Niche Between 'Countdown' and 'Deadliest Catch'?

Network wants to stake out territory between unscripted reality, cable news

Current TV is trying to define its brand as it makes a Keith Olbermann-assisted grab for more viewers -- and believes its niche lies between the homes of "Countdown" and "Deadliest Catch."

A day after announcing that Olbermann would join the network co-founded by Al Gore, Current CEO Mark Rosenthal told reporters Wednesday that Current is focused on issues-oriented, unscripted programming.

Also read: Al Gore: What Olbermann Will Do for Current TV

Rosenthal said that puts Current somewhere between cable news outlets and A&E, National Geographic and Discovery -- networks that offer in-depth and and fact-based shows that aren’t particularly issues-oriented.

"Great networks," he said. "They focus on bakers, and pawn brokers, and truckers driving dangerous journeys. While these jobs are interesting, they don’t exactly illuminate the issues of the day."

Current is different, Rosenthal said, in that it offers in-depth stories about important issues. One model is the televised version of National Public Radio’s “This American Life,” which aired first on Showtime and is now repeating on Current.

One more aspect of Current's niche? A focus on viewer-created content that has been part of the mission since its 2005 launch. The network’s presentation Wednesday showcased ways the network encourages its viewers to create content for advertisers.

With Olbermann, the network is trying to dramatically expand its small audience. The former "Countdown" host will begin a primetime show starting in the late spring, and give input on all of Current’s news coverage, in addition to taking an ownership stake of undisclosed value.

Also read: Olbermann on Current: 'Amplified' -- But With a Smaller Audience

Current, which is available in 58 million households, was viewed in about 18,000 homes in primetime in the foruth quarter of 2010 – less than any other network surveyed by Nielsen, according to Brad Adgate, research director at the New York-based Horizon Media.

Gore said the company is profitable but declined to say how profitable, since it is private.

In Rosenthal's talk with reporters -- which preceeded Current's upfront presentation to advertisers -- he laid out not only his target niche but also how narrow a section of the television landscape Current hopes to dominate.

He broke television down into smaller and smaller slices, finally getting to the one he sees his company owning.

First, there are cable and broadcast stations, he said. Of cable stations, he said, there are those that focus on fiction and those that focus on fact.

Of those that focus on fact, he added, there are those like MTV and Bravo that focus on – say it ain’t so – scripted reality, as well as networks like National Geographic, Discovery, and A&E. Finally there are traditional news outlets, which focus more and more on the same stories and breaking news.

Current TV, he says, has a huge opportunity to offer unscripted, issues-oriented shows not necessarily tied to breaking news.

Some of the shows the network presented Wednesday, such as the documentary series “Vanguard, clearly fit the issues-oriented model. Others – such as “Smoke Jumpers,” about firefighters who parachute into fire zones – wouldn’t be at all out of place on A&E or Discovery.

The new show “Bar Karma,” meanwhile, fits into the interactive niche but not the one for fact-based programming. The new fictional series invites the audience to help craft key plot points, and was created with input from sponsors.

The show helps expand Current’s tradition of eliciting viewer involvement by also bringing them into advertising campaigns. Viewers will be invited, for example, to decide how one advertiser should be worked into the show.

One thing Current can almost guarantee? No shows about cakes. As Rosenthal's comments suggest, the network really has it in for them.