Al Gore Gets Down
During a town hall meeting on MTV in 2000, Al Gore dismissed a question about the rapper Mos Def. Throughout his career, Gore viewed hip-hop music, even when practiced by a politically conscious artist like Mos Def, as an undignified form of political expression. "Gandhi once said you must become the change you wish to see in the world," Gore said of hip-hop. "I don't think it's good enough to say, 'Well, we're just reflecting a reality.'"
Five years later, on a spring night in San Francisco, none other than Mos Def was anchoring the pre-launch party for Gore's new youth cable channel, Current, reflecting a reality of a different sort--that of the television business, where hipness trumps values. Gore was there too, trying to pump up enthusiasm for what he claims will be an entirely new approach to news and culture. Looking bulky but relaxed, Gore asked the diverse young crowd, "How many of y'all would like to see an opportunity to talk about what's going on in your world that you can participate in with television?"
Current screened three video clips as evidence of what the network plans to offer: the first a high-speed montage, created by a team of producers, freelancers and the audience itself, touching on everything from poppy fields in Morocco to hacking into Paris Hilton's cell phone; the second, a twice-hourly news update spotlighting the top ten queries on Google for any given subject; and the third, winner of a $10,000 submission prize, a satire of political campaign ads that came across as an amateurish stab at The Daily Show With Jon Stewart.
Reactions were lukewarm at best. "It's the same references you see on any other channel," said 26-year-old activist Julian Davis. "When did Google become alternative media?" asked 22-year-old filmmaker Jennie Heinlein.
Comments like these suggest that what Current has become is quite different from the vision Gore and his partner, Joel Hyatt, started with. What began as an effort to challenge Rupert Murdoch and the right-wing domination of the corporate media has transformed into a business proposition to lure a youth audience with lofty rhetoric, new technology and pop-culture content. Gore and Hyatt didn't have TV experience, so they ceded creative control to industry people who did. Along the way, "democratizing" the media--their buzzword from the get-go, which they described as giving space to ordinary young people--became more important than politics or elevating television's dismal content. What emerges on August 1, Current's launch date, could re-semble an interactive grad-school version of MTV. Current may still improve youth television and usher in a wave of new technology, but it isn't likely to change the media, or the world. "Less and less they're trying to run a company with a social mission," says Orville Schell, dean of the Berkeley School of Journalism and a member of Current's board of directors. "They want something that's new and interesting and economically viable."
After the 2000 election, Gore became increasingly concerned about the conservative shift in the press. While teaching at the Columbia School of Journalism, he invited Rupert Murdoch to discuss the corporate consolidation of the media. Around the same time, Gore was helping his old Democratic fundraiser Joel Hyatt, an influential lawyer and entrepreneur who teaches business at Stanford University, to try to buy The New Republic. When the deal fell through, their attention turned to the concept of starting a high-end political website for progressives.
"The idea didn't have a business model," Hyatt says. "Both of us, having spent 2000 fundraising, didn't feel like once again asking our friends for money." They explored different media possibilities and hired Jamie Daves, who ran youth outreach for Bill Clinton in 1992 and served as a senior official at the Federal Communications Commission. Cable television, which Gore dubs "the dominant medium of our time," became the most appealing avenue, offering two revenue streams, from advertisers and subscribers. As they queried friends in the industry for advice, Gore and Hyatt kept hearing the same refrain: There is no market on TV for a liberal channel. No one will watch it. No advertiser wants it. No cable operator will put it on the air. So they turned to an emerging demographic that appealed to both advertisers and visionaries. Twentysomethings were defining their buying habits, coming into their own politically and were underserved creatively on television. The decision was made to launch a youth network. Gore, through a spokesman, declined to comment for this article.
Hyatt and Gore knew cable would be a tough market to crack. The most popular television shows for the 18-to-34 demographic today, according to Brad Adgate at Horizon Media, are American Idol, Desperate Housewives, Apprentice 2, CSI, ER and Survivor. The West Wing ranks ninetieth, two spots ahead of 60 Minutes. The only network to attract and hold young viewers consistently has been MTV. "Young people trust what they get from MTV more than any other source," says Jehmu Green, president of Rock the Vote. "It's an opportunity for Current to be the competitor and tap into those not watching MTV." In fact, the channel decided to aim at MTV's elder graduates, according to Annie Zehren, Current's head of marketing.
In fall 2002, Gore and Hyatt summoned leaders in media, technology and finance to brainstorm programming ideas at San Francisco's Global Business Network, an incubator for outside-the-box thinking. Gore had been influenced by an MTV show in the mid-1990s called UNfiltered, which consisted of short personal narratives solicited by MTV and created by the audience. The subject matter ranged from Christian rock music to single mothers on heroin, but nearly all of it was raw, enthralling and new. Yet some participants at the gathering wondered if Gore's enthusiasm for grassroots television was authentic. "They [Gore and Hyatt] said they wanted 'genuinely bottom-up media,'" recounts Douglas Rushkoff, a new-media critic. "I kept thinking, Do you wanna do this or do you wanna do something that looks like this?" Rushkoff and others envisioned MoveOn.org in prime time: TV that could make civic affairs cool.