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02.08.11

Keith Olbermann Takes Charge of Current TV

The ex-MSNBC anchor announced Tuesday he’s launching a nightly show on Al Gore’s Current TV—and will control the channel’s news and opinion programming. Howard Kurtz on Olbermann’s gamble. Plus, the 13 biggest media quakes.

Keith Olbermann isn’t just joining Current TV and launching a prime-time show in late spring—he’s going to serve as its “chief news officer.”

After years of passionately defending liberal Democrats during his controversial career at MSNBC, Olbermann is going to work for one. Less than three weeks after a war with NBC management led to his abrupt departure from Countdown, he announced Tuesday that he is joining the channel co-founded by Al Gore—and getting an equity stake in the process.

Added bonus: He can donate to any political candidates he wants. On a conference call with reporters, Gore said he considered such contributions to be part of his employees’ “freedom of speech,” and Olbermann said that “our obligation to the viewer is to disclose.”

Over the course of 48 minutes, Olbermann walked a fine line between trashing his former employer—both sides had agreed not to disparage each other for a limited period—and singing the praises of his new one. He described the forthcoming program as “an improved and we hope amplified and stronger version of the show I just did.” He said he wanted to do “news produced independent from corporate interference,” but when pressed on whether he had been restrained at MSNBC, Olbermann retreated slightly. “I don’t want to imply there were massive repressive forces against individual stories,” he said, adding that he wanted to work “in a much more pristine environment.”

Stay tuned, however: “I fully intend to talk about NBC in the immediate future, but this isn’t the day to do that.”

Gallery: 13 Media Quakes

The former vice president heaped praise on his new star, lauding his “independent voice” and “thought-provoking commentary.” Asked whether Olbermann’s appointment as the top news officer means Current is now branding itself a liberal channel, Gore didn’t deny it: “I find myself in substantial agreement with the views I’ve heard Keith Olbermann express,” he said, and democracy “benefits greatly from having Keith Olbermann’s voice heard.”

It wasn’t entirely clear what Olbermann would do as chief news officer—other than get a cool hat with the title inscribed, he joked—but Gore said he would help develop ideas for other shows and provide “editorial guidance” for all news and commentary on the channel.

On one level, this is a step down for the man who almost single-handedly revived MSNBC’s prime-time schedule and was a constant irritant to Fox News. Current TV is a low-rated operation (averaging 23,000 viewers in prime time) that reaches 60 million American homes and generates little attention, featuring as it does such programs as Bar Karma and Kill It, Cook It, Eat It. But Gore noted that Current is available in slightly more U.S. households than MSNBC was when Olbermann launched Countdown in 2003.

In a sense, Current is doing with Olbermann what AOL did Monday with Arianna Huffington, a frequent Olbermann guest, in buying her website for $315 million: Making him the public face of the six-year-old company and the man responsible for running the editorial side. Gore remains a key figure, but he rarely appears on the air, on his channel or elsewhere, as a Current spokesman.

Olbermann, a prolific tweeter, can use the platform as a base to build his brand. He has a fervent following—along with plenty of detractors—as a liberal champion who delighted in bashing Republicans, and many fans were disappointed at his departure midway through a $30-million contract. MSNBC suspended Olbermann for making donations to three Democratic congressional candidates, and the backstage sniping that followed—including Olbermann’s threat to go public with his grievances and the cable channel’s threat to fire him—irreparably ruptured the relationship. He left just before Comcast, whose executives were expected to take a harder line against his heated rhetoric, took control of NBC.

What will the new show look like? Will there be a segment called “ Worst Persons in the World”?

“There may be a segment that resembles that, both in structure and in tone, but it won’t be called ‘Worst Persons,’” said Olbermann, who believes the deliberately overstated title was sometimes misinterpreted. But “calling people out,” he said, “well, it’s part of my DNA.”

Howard Kurtz is The Daily Beast's Washington bureau chief. He also hosts CNN's weekly media program Reliable Sources on Sundays at 11 a.m. ET. The longtime media reporter and columnist for The Washington Post, Kurtz is the author of five books.