Keith Olbermann will be taking his act to the network via a prime-time show five nights a week starting this spring. And network chairman Al Gore has returned to the campaign trail, touting Olbermann as some combination of Thoreau ("a gifted thinker"), Michael Moore ("one of America's great provocateurs") and Tony Robbins ("amazing talent and powerful communicator").
But while Olbermann may bring loyal viewers from MSNBC and offer a face to stop channel surfers, Current still has another 163 hours in a week to program. On Wednesday, the network, which is in about 60 million homes, offered more about how it hopes to juice the lineup.
CEO Mark Rosenthal laid out a graph of the TV universe, breaking down how Current may find an audience. Among its competitive, non-fiction set, he listed three groups: the news channels; the MTVs and Oxygens with "scripted reality"; and the Historys and TLCs, which he praised, but said "don't exactly illuminate the issues of the today."
Current has at least a vague notion of wanting to feed its audience entree and dessert: New discoveries about current events told in a powerful narrative. Two descriptions Rosenthal advanced: open minds, spark dialogue.
Of course, it's tough to develop a network brand identification and hew to it in full. At Current now, there's a documentary-style news program that looks to draw attention to issues that could be overlooked by a mainstream media. A series offering a comedic look at the "24/7 media overload." And a TV version of NPR's "This American Life" with Ira Glass. Coming Friday is a confusing -- at least until then -- sci-fi series with viewer participation.
But what could be most intriguing is how Current differentiates itself with the kind of reality series splashed all over cable -- the ones that take viewers inside conflicts and settings where they can't go.
Current has two coming this year: "Smoke Jumpers" and "4th and Forever." The first follows wildfire fighters in Montana, the second a high school football team in Long Beach, Calif., a community dealing with drugs and gangs.
What makes "Smoke Jumpers" that different from the TruTV show about Texas oil drillers titled "Black Gold" Or "4th and Forever" from other sports series that follow teams through a season?
Much of that direction falls to Brian Graden, who spent years developing reality series at MTV Networks like Jersey Shore" and "16 and Pregnant," which energized the slumping network. Yet these are the opposite of what Current says it wants to produce.
At Current, Graden has been serving as an uber-advisor on content, working with senior vice president Ocean MacAdams, also from MTV.
Graden says at Current conflict can't be artificial and exist simply for the sake of drama -- such as a father and son with competing motorcycle repair shops. The characters need to serve as a champion or combatant to help illuminate a wider concern. "Whoever our protagonist is has to have a front-line reality to an issue," Graden said.
"Smoke Jumpers" offers plenty of firefighting action but also tension between older and younger firefighters about the impact of urban sprawl on their work. "4th and Forever" -- at which Graden is a producer -- focuses on the legendary football program at the Long Beach Poly high school, which is a rallying point in a challenged community that gives players a shot college scholarships.
"I want to use popular television techniques to address the issues that are affecting them," MacAdams said.
Perhaps the genre should be tabbed "reality conscience."