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The TV Column: Keith Olbermann gets charged up for his new role on Current TV

By Lisa de Moraes
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 8, 2011; 6:58 PM

Keith Olbermann, the sparky former anchor of MSNBC's most popular program, announced Tuesday that he will host a one-hour prime-time weeknight show on Current TV, the public-affairs network co-founded by former vice president Al Gore and Joel Hyatt.

Additionally, Olbermann will serve as chief news officer of Current, which is privately owned by Gore, Hyatt and other investors.

"Nothing is more vital to a free America than a free media, and nothing is more vital to my concept of a free media than news produced independently of corporate interference," Olbermann said at the top of Tuesday's news-conference call with the press.

"We are delighted to offer Keith the independent platform and the freedom that Current will provide," weighed in Gore, the network's chairman.

Hyatt, meanwhile, hailed the hire as "the best investment that Current has ever made."

Olbermann had been averaging about 1 million viewers as the centerpiece of MSNBC's prime-time lineup; Current, meanwhile, averages about 23,000 viewers in prime time.

Olbermann abruptly exited MSNBC in January, about halfway through a contract reported to be four years in length and worth $30 million. Neither execs at the NBC Universal-owned cable news network nor Olbermann would discuss details of that exit, but it was presumed at the time that Olbermann would be barred from returning to TV for some period of time.

Olbermann, in fact, will be able to return to TV late this spring, in a prime-time one-hour show airing each weekday, Gore announced during the conference call. "We are counting down the days to Keith Olbermann's return to television," chimed in Current chief executive Mark Rosenthal. He would not say how many days that was.

The men hinted that the hiring of their new star would mark the start of an overhaul of Current's prime-time slate, but they declined to elaborate on that. If you were hungry for details when you went into the phone call, you hung up still hungry.

Olbermann surprised his fans when, on his Jan. 21 edition of "Countdown," he announced it would be his last and that MSNBC was ending his contract. To this day, neither side has publicly discussed the reason for Olbermann's abrupt exit. The departure came a couple of months after MSNBC suspended Olbermann for two days for making campaign contributions to three political candidates, including Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.), who is recovering from a gunshot wound to the head during a Jan. 8 assassination attempt in Tucson.

Olbermann smelled trouble Tuesday morning, when someone on the call asked about a report that he'd left MSNBC with the basics of this Current deal already in place. He jumped in and said, firmly, "Everything you see here is because of events that began Saturday, January 22, of this year."

Olbermann's as-yet-unnamed new show "will be, for all intents and purposes, an improved and amplified and stronger version of the show I just did at" MSNBC, he told reporters.

But he did not rise to the bait when asked several questions about his exit from "Countdown" and MSNBC - including a question as to whether it was related to the takeover of that cable network's parent company, NBC Universal, by cable giant Comcast. Olbermann said he would discuss MSNBC in detail, down the road sometime. Comcast has a 10 percent stake in Current.

When one reporter questioned the political "independence" of Current - given that Gore is a former Democratic vice president - Gore responded: "I consider myself a recovering politician, and you won't see any interference of a political nature."

Additionally, Gore said, Olbermann's experience with regard to political campaign contributions at MSNBC would not be repeated at Current, where he will be allowed to make political donations if they are disclosed publicly.

"We believe at Current that every citizen has freedom of speech, and free speech includes the ability to contribute to the candidate of your choice," Gore explained.

As chief news officer, Olbermann is going to provide "editorial guidance" for Current's prime-time schedule and will exec-produce other programming for that lineup. He will also take an equity stake in Current, the details of which he declined to discuss.

Everyone who was Current TV-affiliated on the call declined to discuss any other plans for prime time.

Asked about the wisdom of Olbermann switching from the more established MSNBC to Current, Gore noted that when Olbermann returned to MSNBC in spring of 2003, it had about 58 million domestic subscribers - whereas Current currently has 60 million domestic subscribers and a total of 75 million worldwide.

Most cable TV systems offer Current TV on their digital tier. MSNBC, now in about 95 million homes, is widely available as an analog basic-cable network.

Asked whether he planned to migrate his Worst Person in the World segment from "Countdown" to his new show, Olbermann said he would use the concept, because "calling people out is, well, part of my DNA." But he added that "that phrase - worst person in the world - was unfortunately . . . deliberately, by some of the recipients of the honor, taken too seriously," so the name will be changed.

In Current TV, Olbermann said, the founders have "created the model truth-seeking entity." He called it "truly the most exciting venture in my career."

CBS shake-up

Jeff Fager, the executive producer of "60 Minutes," has been promoted to the newly created position of chairman of CBS News.

Simultaneously, CBS News named its new president: David Rhodes, head of U.S. television operations for Bloomberg, but maybe better known for his dozen years at Fox News, during which he rose from production assistant to vice president.

That leaves no room at the inn, newswise, for Sean McManus, who has been heading both CBS News and CBS Sports since 2005.

Not to worry, he's been promoted as well - to chairman of CBS Sports.

With McManus out of the news operation, here's how that turf will be divvied up:

As chairman of CBS News, Fager will report directly to CBS Corp. President and Chief Executive Officer Leslie Moonves and will guide the overall editorial direction, content and quality of all CBS News broadcasts, both on-air and online, the network announced Tuesday.

Rhodes will report to Fager and will run the operations of CBS News on a day-to-day basis, taking charge of all coverage and staffing.

Rhodes has been the head of U.S. television for Bloomberg since November 2008, managing programming, development, editorial, newsgathering, production and operations, and directing a staff of more than 200.

Prior to joining Bloomberg, Rhodes worked for 12 years at Fox News. At the time he left, he was vice president of news, managing all of the channel's day-to-day news operations and domestic bureaus, with emphasis on breaking news and political coverage, CBS said.

"We believe he will make a huge contribution to the culture of CBS News, to its daily operations and vision, and will also offer fresh insights and a new point of view on the way we do things," Moonves said in Tuesday's mess-o'-announcements.

"In a changing business, that can only add to our strength," he added.

As for McManus, Moonves said: "As we expand our operations at CBS Sports, CBS College Sports Network and in other parts of our company as well, we will require Sean's uncommon depth of knowledge of the business, his deal-making acumen and his unique and positive relationships throughout the world of sports."

McManus had already been president of CBS Sports a long time when, in '05, he was named to helm a news division under the gun over a discredited broadcast about President George W. Bush's military service. McManus had no formal news experience but had successfully revived the network's sports operation.

Once taking on the news division, as well, one of McManus's first moves was to go after and land Katie Couric, who was then the darling of morning infotainment programming as longtime co-host of NBC's "Today" show.

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