The increasing demand for cable television content means the rise of more and more specialized networks to fill that vast, ever-expanding bandwidth. Interested in watching only programming that caters to your interest in professional horseracing, lawn-and-garden maintenance, or the specific sensibilities of Oprah Winfrey? There are now entire channels devoted to nothing but—all self-contained ecosystems existing far beyond the perimeter of mainstream TV, all populated by foreign civilizations of personalities harboring their own unique languages, value systems, and ideas of what constitutes entertainment. Most of these go completely undiscovered, happened upon only by an accidental slip of the remote and quickly fled after an exclamation of “What the hell am I watching?” TV Outland cuts a machete-swath through the TV thickets, and explores the strange indigenous tribes living just out of sight on your cable package.
The channel: Launched in 2005 as a joint production with business partner and former Democratic Party figure Joel Hyatt, Current TV was meant to be Al Gore’s televised revolution, a call for “democratization” of the medium from a guy who, spurned by his soured presidential bid, increasingly sought to reinvent himself as a man who operates outside of politics. Current (née INdTV) initially consisted entirely of crowd-sourced bursts of viewer-created video, and was designed to be just as independent and liberating as Gore’s other most famous invention: the Internet.
As it turns out, the network’s model of short clips of user-generated content was a revolutionary and incredibly profitable idea—for YouTube, which debuted around the same time and almost immediately sent Gore’s network into a six-years-and-counting identity crisis. Today, Current boasts that it’s available in 75 million households around the world, but chances are good few of the people in them know it. If they do, they probably think of Current as “the network that had two of its female reporters imprisoned in North Korea that one time,” or more likely, “that channel where Keith Olbermann is now.” Still, even Olbermann’s audience only averages out to about 200,000 viewers a week, with less than half of those in the all-important 25 to 54 age range. So rather than reinvent cable television as we know it, Current has been forced to just try to survive, reinventing itself over and over in a constant state of uncertainty.
Target audience: That regular upheaval is reflected in its ever-shifting target demographic, which has also changed considerably over the years from its ambitious beginnings. Back then, Current TV was meant to attract, as the New York Times put it, “youths who think,” i.e. politically minded, Internet-savvy people between the ages of 18 and 34 who “got it,” and didn’t need The Man feeding them the news when they could capture it themselves on their Flip cameras. But all that more or less went away in 2009 with the hiring of MTV’s former president Mark Rosenthal—the man who transformed that network from a home for music videos into a place where drunk and pregnant people make mistakes—who immediately set about making similar sweeping reforms.
Gone were the short-form, user-generated video “pods,” which had already begun creeping into more mainstream news channels anyway. In its place would be more traditional, long-form programming aimed at people in their mid-to-late 30s. At the same time it said goodbye to the kids, Current TV also urged them to lighten up a little, announcing that it would try to be “less serious”—apparently hoping to attract older viewers who cared about issues, but also weren’t going to, y’know, hold a drum circle protest about it.
And yet, that didn’t last long either. After strange, Rosenthal-engineered experiments in scripted series—most notably the interactive comedy Bar Karma from Sims creator Will Wright, which crowd-sourced all of its plotlines from the Internet—Current sobered up and adopted a format heavy on documentaries and newsmagazine-style shows targeted at the civic-minded, who are very serious people indeed. And with the coronation of Keith Olbermann as its official figurehead, the network moved even further away from its original vision, playing to a decidedly liberal, somewhat sanctimonious viewpoint embodied in its in-house promotional ads. “We salute the insightful perspective, celebrate journalistic integrity, expect accountability, and create the commentary that drives the truth,” they say, implicitly patting its viewers on the back for demanding the same. All that remains of Current’s original mission statement now is a commitment to being “independent” and free of corporate influence (though, yes, it will still happily accept your credit-card commercial money).
What’s on: Mention Current TV to a staunch ideological foe of Al Gore and they’d likely joke, “Oh yeah, what’s on that—Keith Olbermann and An Inconvenient Truth five times a day?” And that’s precisely the image its founders were hoping to avoid when it first started—a time when, as pointed out by Reuters in this assessment of the channel’s troubles, it strove to avoid being “Gore TV,” even if that meant squandering some of the “rock-star” aura he’d accrued. While Gore’s decision to remain in the shadows has earned Current its most frequent criticism—and left the station bereft of any discernible personality—it’s easy to understand why he sought to stave off any perceived slide into liberal slant for as long as he could. But now that Gore has ceded Current’s identity so completely to Olbermann, the channel’s biggest struggle is to maintain a delicate balance between newsgathering and outright politicizing, a line that grows thinner every day.
Currently offsetting the daily five (!) hours of Countdown—one live episode, four repeats—are the investigative journalism series Vanguard, the Morgan Spurlock-hosted 50 Documentaries To See Before You Die, and movies that, to be fair, are only sometimes An Inconvenient Truth. And on the weekends, Current rests, picking up an eclectic mix of narrative features that includes everything from serious, politically minded stuff like United 93 and The Life Of David Gale to random, “look what we got in this bargain bundle” selections such as Clay Pigeons and Lock, Stock, And Two Smoking Barrels. So like most of the shows it features, Current’s programming is split nearly equally between info and entertainment, its one seeming throughline the impression that it’s only the smartest and most discerning of either.
The viewing week: Of course, Current TV’s sense of offering curated entertainment is questionable, given how much it depends on repetition—and this primarily of a single show. Right now the network mostly fills its rare non-Olbermann hours with exactly two programs. Vanguard, easily the most worthy of the amount of television real estate it occupies, was once championed by now-ousted president Rosenthal as Current’s model for its future direction. Now it’s more humbly described as just “the best documentary series you’ve never seen”—a perhaps unintentional acknowledgment of how it’s essentially wasted on a channel no one really knows about.
But it’s also an accurate statement: Vanguard is easily as good, if not often better than most of cable’s current crop of investigative journalism hours, embedding its brave correspondents Adam Yamaguchi, Christof Putzel, and Mariana van Zeller in various dangerous situations and typically allowing their footage to speak for itself without much additional commentary. The crew gets some amazingly visceral footage in this process—interviews with gun-toting Brazilian gangs and OxyContin dealers and addicts, shots of meat lockers filled with the corpses of Mexican immigrants who died crossing the desert—most likely because of the show’s complete anonymity. One often gets the impression that the only reason the Vanguard crew gets the shots it does is because the subjects expect no one to ever see it. But while they’re probably right (and that’s unfortunate), it’s easy to see why Vanguard remains one of Current’s few legacy shows from its initial plans to provide immersive, “experiential” reporting.
Unfortunately, outside of the Peabody Awards committee (which recognized Vanguard in 2010), few people watch it. And much like Current’s recently wrapped 4th And Forever series (which tracked a season in the life of a high-school football team), all of the network’s original documentary series get far less attention than its other most frequently aired show, 50 Documentaries To See Before You Die, which merely rehashes other filmmakers’ non-fiction work to far more innocuous effect. Hosted by Morgan Spurlock in self-congratulatory, “documentaries can change the world” mode, the five-part series counts down obvious candidates from Hoop Dreams to March Of The Penguins while also making some questionable omissions (Choosing three Michael Moore films and only two by Errol Morris?) and reserving plum spots for both Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth and Spurlock’s own Super Size Me in the Top 10. That it ranks Super Size Me well above films like The Fog Of War, Paradise Lost, or One Day In September should tell you everything about 50 Documentaries’ arbitrariness and overall relevancy.
In between only occasionally insightful conversations with the filmmakers and subjects, critics and professors, or even just random fans (Henry Rollins thought Burma VJ was powerful stuff, man), Spurlock attempts to make it all hang together with wraparound vignettes capturing his road trips to meet people like The King Of Kong’s Billy Mitchell, or the all-grown-up creepy kid preacher Levi from Jesus Camp. Once he gets there, Spurlock mostly asks about how documentaries have changed their lives like his documentaries changed his. Given the apparent expense of sending Spurlock around the country, getting the various talking heads together, and then picking up the broadcast rights to most of the movies that the special covers—not to mention the obvious pride Current feels in having some exclusive content for once, even something that would just be a drop in the bucket over at a place like Bravo—you can probably understand why Current runs 50 Documentaries as constantly as it does. Still, you have to feel for Keith Olbermann who, for over a month now, has been forced to end his nightly live show by urging viewers to stay tuned, yet again, for one of five episodes of one of the only series his network owns.
Signature show: Of course, Olbermann’s obviously been through worse, which is why he’s on Current in the first place: When Olbermann found himself slowly pushed out of MSNBC—either over his contributions to political campaigns or more nebulous network infighting, depending on which account you read—his relaunch of Countdown five months later at Current was trumpeted as something of a victory. Not only would Olbermann not be silenced (“As I was saying…” he harrumphed as he began his first broadcast), Countdown would get the even more enviable position of being a network’s flagship show, the bedrock on which Current could build its future. The slow decline in ratings against his competitors—including former protégé Rachel Maddow—hasn’t exactly borne out that first part, but there’s no denying that absolutely everything on Current orbits around Countdown. For proof, just look at the FAQ page from Current TV’s website: All 18 of them are either directly about Olbermann or find a way to work him into the conversation anyway. One even asks, rather poignantly, “What else is on Current TV besides Keith Olbermann?” (“Why, what else would you ever need, my pet?” it unfortunately doesn’t answer.)
As for the show itself, very little about Countdown has changed from its MSNBC days. True, the set is a bit smaller and the video and audio glitches seem slightly more frequent, occasionally revealing Olbermann’s slightly lower-rent digs. And oddly enough, the whole “countdown” thing doesn’t seem to be such a big deal anymore, as Olbermann no longer takes pains to enumerate the day’s most salient news topics—suggesting MSNBC owned intellectual property rights on the act of counting. But otherwise, it’s all still there: “Worst Person In The World”; those “Time Marches On” montages of “strange news stories” (which have increasingly become Tosh.0-like dumping grounds of the day’s viral videos); guest comedians like Paul F. Tompkins, David Cross, and Richard Lewis, seemingly brought in specifically so Olbermann can try to one-up them with the riffing he’s clearly been practicing at home.
The most obvious difference in Countdown 2.0 is that Olbermann is no longer bound by MSNBC’s network politics—though some three months in, he finally seems to have gotten over that initial grudge for his former home. For instance, Olbermann quickly scrapped his spiteful plan to extend every show by several minutes in order to fuck with Maddow’s timeslot—a wise move, considering Maddow handily beats him anyway—and while his booking of MSNBC-banned Daily Kos creator Markos Moulitsas as a regular contributor was at first an act of open defiance, these days Moulitsas is just one of the many likeminded left-leaning blog editors (most of whom don’t seem all that comfortable on television) that Olbermann regularly brings in to agree with him. There’s a long-standing complaint that Keith Olbermann, even more so than right-wing pundit sworn enemies like Bill O’Reilly, has always existed in his own echo chamber, refusing to interview anyone who might challenge the authority of his opinion. In his new Current TV kingdom where he can totally call the shots, those castle walls now seem several feet thicker.
Defining personality: Considering how strenuously Al Gore seemed to avoid politicizing Current TV in the beginning—and how often he and Hyatt insisted it would not just be a liberal answer to Fox News—it’s a little strange that he would choose to make one of the most polarizing figures in punditry the smirking face of his network. And while Olbermann continues to quote Edward R. Murrow and stump for his show as some sort of bastion of sanity and straightforward reporting, most of his commentary remains, as ever, a mix between can-you-believe-this-shit? snarking and I’m-choking-on-my-own-rage-here sneering, with his ire still directed squarely at Republicans and, most intensely, Fox News—or rather, “Fake News” or “Fixed News”—and often sounding every bit like the left-wing version of that network’s hyperbole and name-calling.
Of course, unlike the majority of the Fox News team, Olbermann still remains a pretty funny guy for all his “have you no shame, sir?” huffiness. It helps that he’s quick with a pop-culture reference, as when he marveled at a ridiculous Fox report that the East Coast earthquake was unlikely to unleash a tsunami (which would really be something, considering aftershocks emanate outward) by adding, “Gee, thanks, Fox! What about Mothra? Was Mothra released?” He also still has a way with a Spy Magazine-like satirical aside—as when he introduced Republican candidate Jon Huntsman with “Huntsman, who plays a moderate Republican on TV.” And it certainly helps that most comedians are liberals, meaning Olbermann is never short on guests to come and lighten things up.
But out here in the thickets of the basic-cable wilderness, Olbermann seems to have only grown more and more feral. Calling out one day’s “Worst Person” nominees from Fox’s The Five, for example, he bluntly identifies its co-hosts as “Andrea Tantaros, moron” and “Eric Bolling, racist,” reads a Greta Van Susteren quote in a cruel imitation of her teeth-clenched, crooked-mouthed enunciation, then summarily denounces them all as “attention-crazed losers who will literally say anything to get on television and, in their own little sick world, adored.” As a kicker, he openly compares Rupert Murdoch to Muammar Gaddafi—after the latter is caught hacking the emails of embedded reporters—with explicit equivalency. And just as often, he even extends his hatred to all of the network’s viewers, dismissing them as stupid, obese, and more or less not worth saving. All in all, probably not what Current TV had in mind when it first dreamed of a “small-d democratic” TV network that shied away from opinionating and made room for everyone.
Signing off: But rather than ask Keith Olbermann to change up his style to suit Current TV’s even-keeled approach, Current has made the rare decision to change itself to better suit Keith Olbermann. Its latest signee, Cenk Uygur, is another liberal anchor in the Olbermann mold—even a fellow MSNBC refugee, rumored to have been kicked off for his equally hectoring tone. Uygur will now adapt his popular online news show The Young Turks for the network, bridging the gap between Current’s nascent vision of Internet-incorporating, “multi-screen” television and its modern existence as the House That Olbermann Built. He’s also indicative of where Current plans to go from here: While, like Countdown, Turks has its own entertaining, often aggressively unhinged takes on political and cultural commentary, when Turks debuts in Countdown’s lead-in spot later this year, Current will be taking a decisive step toward becoming a home for cable news punditry, a television form that’s the opposite of innovative. And thus, after trying so hard over the years not to become just Gore TV, it seems as though Current has ended up becoming something every bit as liberal—and exciting—as Al Gore himself.
Up next: Oprah Winfrey has had three months to make OWN her own, and she’s doing it without the boost of her flagship show. Yeah, so how’s that going?