CURRENT-TV Upfront: Olbermann Is the Sizzle; Bar Karma and New Series Are the Steak - Simon Applebaum

By TV / Video Download Archives

Current TV's first Upfront presentation last week may have featured network founder and former Vice President Al Gore and the networks new centerpiece Keith Olbermann, but the highlight was the new weekly series, Bar Karma, the medium's first anthology drama audience-crafted from almost head-to-toe, from gaming legend Will Wright and Nickelodeon veteran Albie Hecht. As the audience for Current TV's first-ever upfront event filed into the Paley Center For Media in New York's main auditorium, Jennifer Hudson's hit tune "Spotlight" played in the background. You couldn't have asked for a song better reflective of what this channel, reachable to 60 million U.S. TV households after five-and-a-half years in existence, worked up last week.

Current's big story, of course, was the introduction of Olbermann who is making the channel his new primetime home (plus he has an equity stake and role as chief news officer), but equally big news was the introduction of Bar Karma, which premiered on Current last Friday night. Just two weeks into this year's Upfront cycle, there's no question we're in for more channels than ever taking part. Two of the three networks at bat so far are first-timers.

This was Current's opportunity to answer all the speculation over what direction the service would take, more than a year after former MTV Networks' executive Mark Rosenthal became CEO. Here's the scorecard on what transpired.

Venue: Paley Center pales in comparison to other upfront facilities in size and sizzle. However, the formal auditorium look worked well with Current's push to be taken seriously as a channel for innovative series. Nice touch: the network's new big-letter logo waving like an American flag on the stage while tunes like "Revolution" by The Beatles were playing. Grade: A-minus

Presentation: Rod Serling's original opening narration for The Twilight Zone noted his creation as "the middle ground between light and shadow, between science and superstition." Current went the same route to demonstrate its existence as home base between 24/7 news networks and reality/documentary services. "There's a huge opportunity for (us) to provide smart, provocative, inside-the-action programs," Rosenthal maintained. The clips and commentary worked best when highlighting that point. An extended Bar Karma discussion with the program's creators clearly showed the program's potential, but may have left some in the crowd confused over why a drama (albeit one viewer-generated in the same way as much of the network's content and commercials) is on the network's lineup. Grade: B-plus

News Value: You knew Keith Olbermann would make his first formal remarks since leaving MSNBC there. He did and didn't disappoint, receiving an extended ovation for hooking up with the channel. We also got a first look at 4th & Forever, a documentary series about Long Beach Poly high school in California (and its remarkable number of football players doing well in the NFL) which may end up winning critical raves later this spring. Poly football coach Raul Lara made his first trip ever to NY to be part of this presentation, and Current execs hosted him at the hit Vince Lombardi Broadway musical following the event. The network also announced its new reality series Smoke Jumpers. Grade: A-minus

Host: Group effort this time, from Current co-founders Al Gore and Joel Hyatt to Rosenthal and programming consultant Brian Graden (another MTV Networks executive grad). Meat-and-potatoes talk, delivered straight and with no big punch lines. Graden scored with his on-stage interview with Raul Lara...how about a show for him? Grade: A

Overall Grade: A-minus. Current largely met the challenge of clarifying its programming approach to advertisers, doing so in a forward manner. The momentum of landing Olbermann, catching TV observers by surprise, helped the cause.

Two more observations from the passing parade:

*Thanks to the newly posted MediaBizBlogger.com Upfront Schedule, you now know what networks are in the upfront event batting order. Here's a short list of who's yet to make a move: Lifetime, A&E, History, AMC, ABC Family, BBC America and all the channels Comcast brought into its NBC Universal merger (Versus/Golf Channel/E!/Style/G4). Also, wonder if ReelzChannel will enter the game, in the wake of obtaining The Kennedys.

*One of the great guessing games around upfront time is what will Discovery Communications emphasize during its spectacle, scheduled for April 14. Knowing the company's 2011 modus upfront operandi appears much more of a guess. In the last five months alone, Discovery turned Discovery Kids into The Hub (co-owned with Hasbro), turned Discovery Health into Oprah Winfrey Network (co-owned with Harpo), returned Discovery Health to life by mixing it with Fit TV, and launching 3net, its 3D venture with Imax and Sony. Add to that contemplating diginet makeovers of Planet Green and Military Channel. Given the co-ownership, Discovery might consider separate presentations for The Hub and 3net (perhaps even OWN) elsewhere. That way, they get the main event treatment instead of being sandwiched in, or left out of, this main event. Discovery did this in the past with their Spanish-language services (and the result was some well-done events), and will do so again there May 18. Until the next time, stay well and stay tuned!

Simon Applebaum is host/producer of Tomorrow Will Be Televised, the Internet radio/podcast-distributed program about the TV scene. The program runs live Mondays and Fridays at 3 p.m. Eastern time, noon Pacific time, on www.blogtalkradio.com, and on replay at www.blogtalkradio.com/simonapple04. Sponsorships are available through www.sonibyte.com. Have a question or reaction? E-mail it to simonapple04@yahoo.com.

Read all Simon’s MediaBizBloggers commentaries at Tomorrow Will Be Televised.

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