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So here’s the deal Current TV has for its new chief news officer: Keith Olbermann, who in addition to crafting the behind the scenes content for the cable channel will be back in his old 8pm time slot this summer, gets to say whatever he wants. “He just has to make his own travel arrangements,” joked Joel Hyatt, Executive Vice Chairman & Co-Founder, Current Media, in a chat with Olbermann and Staci D. Kramer, Editor & EVP, ContentNext Media/paidContent at the paidcontent 2011 conference. In leaving his hit commentary show to join a small cable network, Olbermann said that he’s now out to prove he’s not crazy. “How’s that working out?” Kramer asked. “Hey, I’ve been fired a few times in my life and been hired by the same people, so I count that as some proof.”
“We reached out to Keith, thinking that if he were ever available, we would love to have him,” Hyatt said. “He has ardent fans and he built MSNBC with Countdown [Olbermann’s old program] when no one watched MSNBC (NSDQ: CMCSA). He changed that.”
Current Media was started in a partnership with between Hyatt and Al Gore after the 2001 presidential election. The channel started as a more youth-oriented property. Asked if that personality has changed, Hyatt said not at all.
“We didn’t like the dysfunction of TV news, that had no diversity and was run by an oligopoly. We started with the idea of user-generated content, before YouTube (NSDQ: GOOG), way before CNN’s i-Report.”
So what about that youth demo?
“Well, I’m still in the 25-54 demographic,” Olbermann said with smile. “Practically, at least.”
Why couldn’t Olbermann do his own “brand thing” like Glenn Beck or Howard Stern? Why did he really decide to join Current?
“What Current has done in the past five years is a record-setting pace,” Olbermann said. “This isn’t a startup. This isn’t starting from scratch. This is a company with a large footprint. That’s the reason the decision was so easy to make. We’re in a time, as Joel said, when corporations are looking at news product that needs to be maximized — and they do that by cutting the reporting. They presented an opportunity to make money, while making the level of corporate influence about zero.”
Olbermann told a story about discussing the preparations for an upfront presentation. He told Hyatt and Gore that he wanted to write his own intro. So he sat down at a laptop and typed out his remarks. He then handed the laptop to Gore.
“We hired you; we know what we’re getting — we don’t need to see it in advance,” Gore told Olbermann. “That level of freedom is why I joined this network.”
During the audience Q&A, paidContent founder Rafat Ali asked Olbermann for his reaction to Sec. of State Hillary Clinton, saying that U.S. outlets haven’t done as good a job of covering the Middle East uprising as foreign broadcasters, notably Al Jazeera. He then asked how it felt to be on the sidelines as all this upheaval has been going on.
“I think that foreign news coverage here has been picking up, but I’m sure Fox News has been giving the Secretary of State’s comments their due,” Olbermann said dryly. He then noted that Current TV had been doing a very credible job of covering in-depth international news for years.
He was also asked whether he would cover the “Charlie Sheen news.” “I can’t say ‘no never,’ but it would be along the lines of what Craig Ferguson did the other night, where he talked about people paying some change to poke their heads into an asylum to look at the crazy people,” Olbermann said. “You would want to do more than just show Charlie Sheen and some scantily clad women and hope that someone clicking the channel stops at that moment.”
Turning back to the business, Hyatt said that though the company had entertained filing for an IPO back in 2007, there are no plans to do so now. “We have no problems with accessing capital and we see no value in going public,” Hyatt said. “Plus, if we were going to file for an IPO, we’d have to release how much we’re paying Olbermann.”
“You don’t want to do that,” Olbermann said.