As it turns out, Keith Olbermann still had a thing or two more to say. In his return to TV on Current, the fiery, progressive host was again naming Worst Persons in the World, delivering Special Comments and promising to speak out against powerful business interests.
Chief among those businesses: his former employer MSNBC, which he left in January after years of friction. One of his first guests, blogger Markos Moulitsas, dished about a past feud with MSNBC host Joe Scarborough. And Olbermann scheduled his new show, still called Countdown with Keith Olbermann, to run a few minutes long and thus, he hopes, cut into the audience for his MSNBC protégé, Rachel Maddow. Defending the move on Twitter, the former sportscaster wrote, "This is not flag football."
It may seem like score settling, but that's part of the Olbermann brand. Successful TV talk hosts are able to meld their personalities and their material. At ESPN and famously at MSNBC, Olbermann presented himself as the lone rebel fighting from within the Death Star against narrow-minded suits. Olbermann's gift on Countdown has been to turn his "me against the Man" attitude into an "us against the Man" mantra as he enjoins his audience to resist corporate power. "We," he said on his first night back, "are the last line of defense."
The difference now is that Olbermann is the Man. Current is still Al Gore's network (the former Vice President co-founded the news-documentary channel in 2005), but Olbermann is its chief news officer, with an equity stake and the job of building a schedule around Countdown. His success and that of tiny Current, with about 50,000 prime-time viewers pre-Olbermann will depend on how well he can graft his brand onto it.
Olbermann is the most recent personality to test a new model of media power. Once, the route to broadcast influence was simple: you became the biggest star on someone else's network. Now Oprah Winfrey has left her talk show to launch OWN. Glenn Beck is leaving Fox News to start an online subscription service.
Granted, this path is not easy. Beck and Olbermann left their respective networks after stretches of tension with their bosses not unlike Katie Couric, who left a coveted news anchor job to own a piece of her upcoming daytime talk show. Winfrey's OWN channel has struggled to equal the ratings it got when it was the Discovery Health channel. Conan O'Brien went to TBS and Howard Stern to satellite radio, both securing rich ownership stakes but arguably losing influence on their smaller platforms. But these growing pains may be part of a bigger transition. In an age of DVRs, social media and self-publishing, audiences identify more with personalities than with TV networks. Each of these moves posits that a personal brand is bigger than a channel's.
Making over Current in his image, Olbermann is finally his own boss. Maybe he'll have better luck than his predecessors did managing his star employee.