The folks behind Current TV are confident they’ve found an underserved niche in the news market. “We’re going to punch the establishment in the mouth,” Cenk Uygur said at the Television Critics Association press tour on Friday. “They have their plastic, fake, robot anchors on there who do not deliver the news. They give you this he-said, she-said drivel.” “I’ll be able to show you something and listen to these guests and tell our viewers what are talking points and what aren’t talking points,” promised Gov. Jennifer Granholm, whose news show starts on January 30, giving Current a full prime time lineup. “I’ve delivered talking points. I know them when I hear them.” Viewers are “looking for a place that connects the dots in a way that makes sense to them,” Vice President Al Gore told us.
The question is how Current can distinguish itself from its competitors in substance as well as tone—and get viewers to connect the dot from the news they’re watching now on MSNBC or CNN to the different product that is Current. It’s one thing to say, as Uygur did, “If you turn to CNN to find out what’s going on in politics, you’re wasting your time,” or another to point out, as Gore did, that “MSNBC has some liberal-oriented shows in the evening, but they have put on the RNC chairman…They start the day with a conservative show,” and another to get them to switch to another product.
Good journalism and good signings help, of course. Gore touted the fact that the network’s won “won every award in journalism.” And certainly one way Current might distinguish itself from its competitors would be to invest heavily in investigative reporting and documentaries. MSNBC’s been expanding its anchored shows, particularly on weekends with the addition of Chris Hayes and now Melissa Harris-perry, and it’s probably true that Current has to fill out its prime-time lineup to keep up. But breaking stories, providing new reported context on major events, and elevating stories that are flying under the radar would be an even more dramatic break with the existing cable model than simply offering a competing brand of analysis. On MSNBC, Hayes has gotten credit from the tech community for doing a segment on the Stop Online Piracy Act: clearly, there are major communities that feel underserved, and could be up for grabs by a network willing to break out of the standard menu of cable news topics.
It would be particularly interesting to know what’s bringing viewers to Current, particularly since David Bohrman, the network’s president, told us that while the average age of viewers for news coverage on the other cable networks was in the 60s, the average age for Current is 47, and for election coverage, it dipped to 36. “If we can mine this, we’re going to have viewers and customers for many years to come,” Bohrman said. Which is true, but the network needs more of them.
When I asked about how Current intends to boost those numbers, Bohrman said that he didn’t want to reveal too much about the network’s marketing strategy. But he indicated that the rollout of Granholm’s show would be promoted by an advertising blitz similar to the one that launched Keith Olbermann’s show on Current. And he emphasized the importance of having a full primetime lineup of news programming to match the amount of information on other networks. Uygur also suggested that the way Olbermann’s ratings took off when his show took on a more progressive bent was proof of the power of persistence, and that the space he’d opened up already counted as a success: “it allowed all of us to be on television.”
But I’ll be very curious to see what else the network plans to do to fight for market share. Unlike a network like Starz, which is only in 19.5 million households, Current has 63 million subscriber households. It’s less an access problem than getting people to hit the right channel buttons. Mending fences with lynchpin talent like Keith Olbermann, who will be hosting upcoming election coverage for the network, will help. But so could questioning the model of the business Current is in.