When Cenk Uygur declined to renew his contract with MSNBC earlier this year, he said it was out of a desire not to toe an establishment line he felt was being laid down for him by the network. In September, Current TV announced that it had hired him to join fellow progressive firebrand Keith Olbermann, starting a new show that will premiere on Monday, December 5 at 7pm. I spoke to him about the creative freedom he says he’s found at Current, what he looks for in a guest and a panel, and the themes that run through his favorite movies and television shows.
When you left MSNBC, you talked about the limitations of the role the network seemed to want you to play. And your online show’s always seemed very liberating. How much freedom do you feel you have at Current to define your role and the tone of the show?
It appears that I have 100 percent freedom. There has been absolutely no restraint here whatsoever, God bless their hearts. No restraint stylistically. No restraint substantively. It’s been a blessing. It’s not a dig on MSNBC, they do what they do. You’ve got a system over there…the good hosts begin to stray from that and put their own stamp on that. Here we get to start fresh and create a whole different kind of show. I think people will look at and it say this isn’t a normal cable news show
What do you think Current’s learned from Keith Olbermann’s tenure? Has his experience made for a smoother transition for you? Taken together, how do you think you and Olbermann define Current’s brand?
They’ve created an outlet here on television that lets strong folks do strong programming. Nobody’s going to check Keith Olbermann. That reassured me that this was a place where I was going to get to create an independent program.
Did the fact that Current signed Olbermann make the network a more attractive destination for you?
Sure, yeah. That meant that they were making a significant investment in progressive programming and strong independent programming, and they were headed in the right direction.
You’ve talked about the importance of developing younger audiences. How do you plan to do that? Especially on a channel that may not be a regular part of younger viewers’ rotation?
I think we have a younger audience because we do things differently. It’s a much more conversational, relaxed, irreeverant show. It’s not stiff. The whole thing reeks of faith…I just read an article the other day where it says it turns out the younger generation is a little more skeptical. They’re looking for something genuine. So many of the other shows use the same, old, tired analysts. We’ve got different strong progressive analysts.
What do you think of moves like NBC’s hiring of Chelsea Clinton to do segments? Do younger viewers want to see themselves on screen? A certain kind of tone? A style of presenting content?
I’m always amused by how they try to fix real issues that they have by putting a facade on it. We hired a young person! We hired Chelsea Clinton! She’s a young person and she has a famous name! The problem is you don’t understand that you’re doing programming from 1955. So much of television is so fake. If you take a young person and insert it into a fake facade, it reinforces the idea that it’s a facade. You haven’t solved the problem at all…Meghan McCain, like her or dislike her, she has strong views, there’s value in her message. But you want to see someone who’s keeping it real. Wes Clark Jr. , we don’t have him as a co-host because he’s the son of the general. He ran in, what, 2004? It’s been a long time. We use him because that guy is passionate and the audience reacts to him. He reaches his audience at their gut level.