It's electric, it's digital ... it's Current TV
By Janice Rhoshalle Littlejohn
By Janice Rhoshalle Littlejohn
Just before Al Gore launched Current TV a year ago, there were more than a few guffaws heard throughout the industry. The idea of a young-adult cable channel consisting of viewer-created video "pods" and interactive ads seemed like a joke.
Nobody's laughing anymore.
"Obviously they didn't get what we were doing," says Joel Hyatt, CEO and co-founder of San Francisco-based Current TV. "Now, just shy of our first anniversary, the entire industry is copying us — how we are engaging our audience to contribute to the content they consume. Those executives that scoffed at us are now saying to their teams: Go figure out how to do what Current is doing."
Indeed, in the year since the 24-hour network premiered on Aug. 1, 2005, Current TV is seeing its model readily duplicated by such major cable players as MTV and VH1, and soon, the newly formed CW broadcast network.
Although Current is by no means the creator of the viewer-contributed genre, the channel has done much to integrate and showcase such content into both its on-air and online programming.
"We really set out to be at the cutting edge," says Hyatt, "to be at the intersection of television and the Internet, bringing what we felt was badly needed innovation to television and doing so by borrowing much of what one could learn from the experience of the Internet. We want to be the television home page of the Internet generation."
At the moment, Current still appears to be more of a zap-by-it channel than appointment television. And its newfangled idea of quick-hit pod programs might have to be incorporated with old-school 30-minute and hour-long series.
"What MTV and The CW are doing," says Robert Thompson, director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University in New York, "is taking this concept that Current is developing and putting it within actual programming.
"My guess is," Thompson continues, "that Current TV is going to do exactly what virtually every other cable network has done: diversifying their schedules, diversifying their genres and depending on scheduled series. That's the way, for over half a century, programming works on television."
But, says David Neuman, president of programming for Current, "if you stick to the notion of half-hour and hour shows and set a schedule, you're disenfranchising all those people that may actually be able to contribute. We want to create compelling television for the audience while radically innovating and facilitating the contributions of the audience creating this product."
Nearly a third of Current's nonfiction programming, aimed at 18- to 34-year-olds, is derived from viewer contributions. Most of these pods, which are tagged "VC2" (VC squared), are about five to nine minutes long and viewers can select their favorites online for future play on the channel.
Currently, pod topics range from the renewed popularity of the Rubik's Cube to a first-person diary of an illegal immigrant in America. These "citizen journalists" also have covered the war-torn streets of Iraq, the flood waters of Hurricane Katrina, and, most recently, life in Beirut, Lebanon, and the carnage in Haifa, Israel, where a bombing is captured in graphic detail. (Contributors are paid a nominal sum for content aired on Current, while others have regular freelance gigs.)
"We're the place that you go for the highest and best form of these kinds of user-generated pieces," Neuman says. "If you have a video of your kid's second birthday, go to YouTube. But if you want to see somebody in the middle of the conflict in Haifa, to show you what it's like to have bombs raining down over your head, you come to Current."
Realizing that compelling programming starts with great storytelling, Current has launched a novel initiative featuring award-winning filmmakers, journalists and authors — including Robert Redford, Elvis Mitchell and Dave Eggers — who will star in online training guides for aspiring VC2 producers.
Of course, to become the premier news and entertainment destination for the iPod generation, Neuman admits "we've got a long way to go, and we're a long way in getting to the standard we aspire to. But we feel pretty good where we've gotten in a year's time."