During the election cycle of 2008, "Countdown with Keith Olbermann" led a newly hot prime-time lineup that introduced "The Rachel Maddow Show" and helped the longtime No. 4 cable news network beat CNN for the first time in prime time -- and occasionally go neck-and-neck with No. 1 Fox News in some key demos. But Mr. Olbermann's new iteration of "Countdown" has a bit more heavy lifting to do.
The show, which moved to Current on Monday after Mr. Olbermann's abrupt departure from MSNBC in January, is the largest programming investment yet -- by a long shot -- for its new home, a small network co-founded in 2004 by former Vice President Al Gore.
Executives familiar with the Current deal say reports of a $10 million salary for Mr. Olbermann and a marketing budget as high as $15 million are "exaggerated." Even if so, his arrival represents a potentially pivotal moment for Current, which debuted as a micro-niche channel heavy on viewer-generated video.
The channel is currently available in 60 million homes, an impressive feat of carriage for one of the few remaining independent channels on the cable dial but a far cry from the 95 million-plus homes that carry MSNBC, CNN, Fox and HLN. Ratings have also been microscopic. Since becoming Nielsen-rated in late 2010, Current has yet to crack the top 70 of Nielsen's cable networks.
Shortly after picking up "Countdown," however, Current began introducing a broader documentary focus. It hopes the election cycle will help draw viewers to Current as they search for Mr. Olbermann's take.
"The single biggest opportunity for any cable news network is the general election," Current CEO Mark Rosenthal told Ad Age . "If you look at Nielsen ratings , fourth-quarter 2007 through fourth-quarter 2008 for Fox, CNN and MSNBC, the three of those saw a combined 100% ratings increase. There's a tremendous on-ramp as you get to the election. To me it seems like a sports season that ends in a championship. The primaries are equivalent to that ."
Mr. Olbermann has also assembled an impressive lineup of contributors, including documentarians Michael Moore and Ken Burns, actor Donald Sutherland and Rolling Stone journalist Matt Taibbi, among others. "Keith immediately becomes the tentpole for the entire network, going forward," Mr. Rosenthal said. "Number one, he's a ratings powerhouse, and he will bring more viewers to Current than have ever been here before in any show in any timeslot by an enormous factor."
Heading into the premiere, the channel has already made some in-roads with advertisers. SNL Kagan estimates Current will gross $31.7 million in ad revenue in 2011, an increase from the $21.1 million it logged in 2010. Ad revenue is on track to finish the second quarter 70% higher than in the second quarter last year, according to Current sales chief Ken Ripley. Launch sponsors of "Countdown" include Lexus, HTC Foster Grant, Microsoft Bing and several pharmaceutical brands. Marketers such as AT&T, Mazda and American Express signed on as integrated partners for recent reality series "Bar Karma," while Dodge and Bing were key sponsors of docu-series "4th and Forever," which premiered May 26.
Just don't expect Mr. Olbermann to get too cozy to his new sponsors. As he says in a new promo spot for "Countdown," "The free-flow of information has been thwarted. The dissenting voice has silenced, and for every story there's a flurry of heavily-biased, corporate-sponsored spin that can distract the most engaged viewer." This week, Mr. Rosenthal looks forward to seeing just how many of those engaged viewers are able to find "Countdown" on its new home.