Al Gore Gets Down
Gore and Hyatt, at Daves's suggestion, recruited Michael Rosenblum, the father of video journalism, to execute their plan and agreed to hire a cadre of fifty digital correspondents who'd form the backbone of the new network. Shortly thereafter, in May 2004, they acquired Newsworld International (NWI) from Vivendi Universal for a reported $70 million, and tentatively titled it INdTV. The network reached a slim 17 million US households, but it gave Gore and Hyatt a launching pad. The twenty investors were exclusively friends of Gore and Hyatt, including Bradley Whitford, Melvin and Bren Simon, Albert Dwoskin, Warren Lieberfarb, Rob Glaser, Bill Joy, Bob Pittman and two California-based equity capital firms, Yucaipa Companies and Blum Capital Partners. The investors, many of them Democratic heavyweights, had various motivations for investing. Some thought they were getting a good deal on a network and wanted to be in a position to grab eyeballs at a cheap price if the venture failed. Others were doing Al and Joel a favor and thought the venture had a decent chance of succeeding. A third group had a larger social or political mission in mind. "People invested out of the belief we were doing something that had the potential to be valuable and important," Hyatt says. Glaser, CEO of the online multimedia company RealNetworks and a major Democratic donor, said through a spokesman that he "invested because he thinks Al Gore is smart and determined and will create a big success."
The investors will have to play an instrumental role if Current hopes to succeed in a market where five conglomerates determine virtually all of youth culture. Hyatt insists Current has the financial wherewithal to duke it out with the big boys, but it won't reveal which cable operators he's met with, how much money Current has or how they purchased NWI. "We have outstanding and deep-pocketed investors," is all he'll say. "We're the last--if not, certainly one of the last--independent companies to be launched." Current will start in 19 million households thanks to distribution agreements (known as "carriage" in industry lexicon) with DirecTV, Time Warner Cable, select markets of Comcast and smaller regional agreements. That's a better position than 95 percent of start-ups but a far cry from stable. Agreements with Dish Network, Cox, Cablevision, EchoStar and all of Comcast will be necessary to grow Current into 50 million households, at which point advertisers begin paying attention. Before that, it's a concept sell.
Essentially, Current will premier without a constituency. "Fox News is the only one who's really gained an audience [recently]," says Tom Wolzien, a media analyst at Sanford C. Bernstein & Co. "It's a tough go these days. You need to get distribution and then have enough money to put content on the screen that people will watch and then hope the advertisers will come." Time Warner is urging prospective start-ups to forget about 24/7 channels and move solely to on-demand programming. "The gale-force winds of the marketplace is the single most important dynamic that everyone in this industry has to deal with," Schell says. "Current is going to be no exception."
In fall 2004 the decision of whom to hire as the network's top staff began to refashion INdTV's identity away from substantive news and commentary and toward slick, MTV-style youth packaging. The new head of programming, David Neuman--the former programming chief for CNN who recruited Paula Zahn, Anderson Cooper and Soledad O'Brien and started as a fellow in the Reagan White House--seemed like an old-school industry insider. The new head of marketing, Annie Zehren, had launched Teen People magazine. The new COO, Mark Goldman, had run Latin American operations for Rupert Murdoch's Sky News. As Gore and Hyatt relinquished creative control, Daves and Rosenblum were quickly let go. Social change was out, running a successful new network was in.
In December 2004, INdTV unveiled a batch of programming themes, including "That's F*&^#ed Up," "Addiction" and, most memorable, "INdTV Paparazzi: Get someone famous to opine on something substantive. (Hey, Paris [Hilton]--what did you think of Rumsfeld's quote on the armored Hum-vee shortage in Iraq?)." One unsuccessful digital-correspondent applicant, former TechTV intern Tim Lang, described INdTV's vision as "Amorphous Revolution. The overthrow of nothing in specific."
On April 1 INdTV transformed into Current and publicly resurfaced for a preview press screening at its stylish two-story headquarters--exposed brick walls and beams, wood floors, modern and minimalist art. Flat-screen TVs everywhere glowed with Current's new logo, four green squares reminiscent of a Josef Albers painting. Gore, wearing a gray suit, open black-collared shirt and black cowboy boots, amiably opened the press conference and reiterated what his network was not. "We have no intention of being a Democratic channel, a liberal channel or a TV version of Air America. That's not what we're all about. We are about empowering this generation of young people in the 18-to-34 population to engage in a dialogue of democracy and to tell their stories of what's going on in their lives, in the dominant medium of our time." The programming, Current officials explained, will be a mix of material produced by David Neuman's in-house team of young correspondents, queries from freelancers and submissions from the audience, which Current hopes will be the network's core. At the beginning, viewers will provide less than a third of all programming. But Neuman hopes to ramp up quickly, eventually soliciting a "tapas bar for young adults."
That night, as Current threw a street party for its target audience, Gore hosted a swanky, closed-door wine and hors d'oeuvres shindig at Current's headquarters, visible from the street through its large glass windows. Massaging the industry was more important than meddling with the masses. When Gore finally stepped out to address the crowd, he was trailed by San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom, Leonardo DiCaprio and Sean Penn.
Press response to the pre-launch ranged from skeptical to sarcastic. "Finally a cable network for burned-out stoners of all ages," joked John Dvorak on MarketWatch.com. "Launching a cable channel is nearly impossible," wrote San Francisco Chronicle TV critic Tim Goodman. "Not even Gore's unquenchable enthusiasm can change that fact." "This week, I told former vice president Al Gore why his new cable-television venture would never work," wrote Newsweek's Brad Stone. The blogosphere, with its open-source proclivities, seemed more receptive. "If they can help create a generation of citizen journalists and indie mediamakers, they have my full-blooded support," blogged Chuck Olsen, an unsuccessful Current applicant and documentary filmmaker.