Cabler serious about network news model

Current TV made headlines early in the year for hiring Keith Olbermann on the heels of his messy exit from MSNBC. Bringing Olbermann into the fold was the start of a remake from a network centered on docus and user-generated material to a more traditional cable news operation.

Current prexy David Bohrman said that the shift in focus was well timed as the 2012 presidential election season kicks into high gear next month. But is Olbermann’s presence enough to make Current a contender in the 24-hour news cycle?

It can’t compete with its established rivals in breaking news, but it can offer in-depth political analysis, as long as its pundits and talking heads are not “shouting like in ‘Crossfire’ or (sticking to) continuous talking points,” Bohrman said.

For the coming electoral season, the plan is to monitor the debates on broadcast news and larger cablers and to sic the net’s stable of pundits on the current crop of GOP hopefuls as they tear at each other. For the future, Bohrman wants to see the net wade deeper into the political fray, hosting debates and interviewing candidates. “Hopefully,” he said, “we’ll hold some politicians’ feet to the fire.”

Columbia Journalism Review exec editor Mike Hoyt told Variety that Olbermann’s influence is almost certainly diminished by his move to the smaller platform of Current, but the venue still has its benefits. “Olbermann surely lost viewers, when he left a network with a large number (of viewers) for a network with many fewer,” Hoyt said. “But he surely gained a lot in terms of editorial control and influence over his network’s programming. And maybe he can build on that.”

According to financial data provided by SNL Kagan, Current’s operating revenue has grown to $115 million in 2011 from $99 million last year. But its programming expenses have ballooned as it shifts resources to personality-driven analysis programming and cuts personnel from Peabody-winning docu series “Vanguard.”

Estimates for programming expenses are up from about $52 million in 2010 to $64 million this year, with the addition of Olbermann, fellow MSNBC alum Cenk Uygur and former Michigan governor Jennifer Granholm to the net’s slate of contributors.

Affiliate fees are up $10 million, though the rate remains flat at 12ยข per sub, and ad revenue is up to a little under $23 million from less than $16 million last year.

Ratings info for the net is hard to come by, largely because of its size, but the snapshot provided by an exhaustive cable ranker from the week ended Dec. 4 is instructive. Current ranks No. 86 among the top 100 cablers, tied with boutique music channel VH1 Classics.

Current is serious about the news network programming model. While most fledgling cablers start off trying to wedge themselves into a weak primetime slot one night a week (and widen from there), Current is focusing on stripped programming: Uygur’s “The Young Turks,” Olbermann’s “Countdown,” then Granholm’s “War Room,” running consecutively from 7 to 10 p.m.

“All three programs every night, five nights a week are really what we’re going to focus on,” said Bohrman. “We’ve got a lot of room to grow here. We’ve really just been doing ‘Vanguard’ here for a while now. I’d like to grow out the daytime, which would require us to build out the broadcast operation.”

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