Al Gore Gets Down
Current's business model depends on being different and separating itself from the 400-channel pack. But is the programming previewed thus far--attractive hosts in a "club-like atmosphere"; specials on celebrities, fashion, music, parenting, religion, technology and travel; fast, jump-cut editing for the MTV generation--really that distinct from what young people are already watching? "Politics" is simply another word in Current's programming lineup, not a guiding theme. "In the beginning, when the idea was long-form documentaries--they were perhaps not an antidote to Fox but an antidote to the soundbite broadcast media," Schell explains.
If the marketplace drove the network's decision to go after youth, then youth drove Current toward short-form content. The network likes to think of these one- to six-minute narrative segments, what they call "pods," as the new music video. "It was so consistent with the fast-paced, two-screen-consuming-at-the-same-time nature of this audience," Neuman explains. "This is an audience that has become 'media grazers,' and we decided to create a network that didn't fight that but rather facilitated that." But such a brief window allows for virtually no context, something that most of TV news already sorely lacks. "That's the old question," says Schell. "Do you satisfy what people want or do you try to change their taste?"
Now the audience--Current hopes--is in a position to answer that question, uploading videos, ranking what they see, fusing the choice of the Internet with the quality of TV. Current's online "assignment desk"--where would-be contributors can visit for ideas--contains a few promising suggestions, including "Current Citizen Journalist" ("Shoot a story that traditional news media won't touch because it's too big, too small, or too something") and "Current Change" ("Who's out there making positive change in the world?"). On the other hand, a featured fifty-five-second submission on the website shows drunken claymation figurines puking.
Gore, a geeky guy with a brilliant mind, maintains that the intersection of technology and culture will direct Current in the right direction. "I personally believe that when this medium is connected to the grassroots storytellers that are out there, it will have an impact on the kinds of things that are discussed and the way they are discussed," he said at the press conference. It sounds like a nonideological Dean campaign on television, complete with Current MeetUps. Yet this vision--like Gore's "People Versus the Powerful" speech in 2000--may not last any longer than Gore's earlier forays into populism. Just take one look at cable TV news, with its recent wall-to-wall coverage of Michael Jackson, Terri Schiavo and the Pope. "Networks do studies and research and put on what people will watch," says Victoria Clark, a lobbyist for Comcast and a former spokeswoman for the Pentagon. "It's a business." Such are the perils of Current's audience-generated model. If the 18-to-34 crowd really wants to see Paris Hilton, the Gore gatekeepers may be powerless to stop it. At the same time, if media savvy right-wingers test the opportunity that Current provides to air videos of themselves blocking abortion clinics or taunting left-wing Columbia professors, Current may choose to discourage political programming altogether. Opening the gates won't necessarily trigger more sophisticated content.
"What are you talking about when you say 'democratizing the media'?" asks Cara Mertes, the executive producer of the PBS documentary program POV, which draws a substantially younger audience than regular PBS programming. "Is it using media to further democratic ends, to create an environment conducive to the democratic process through unity, empathy and civil discourse? Or does it mean handing over the means of production, which is the logic of public access. In that case, you get a shouting match, a bunch of stuff nobody is watching."
Can Current be serious and dignified and appealing and popular? "On air, you're faced with the tyranny of the mass media," says Steve Rosenbaum, creator of MTV's UNfiltered, the inspiration for Current's initial vision. "Which is: If you do three pieces--one on the environment in Alaska, one on homeless people in New York and one on teenage girls getting breast implants, guess which one will do better than the others? People, especially those who watch TV, tend to be attracted to less intelligent, coarser, less thoughtful programming."
Current has always been a work in progress, and perhaps never more so than today, only a few months before its launch. One thing is certain, however. Whatever Gore and Hyatt create won't be part of a broader progressive movement reclaiming American media. The more Gore says Current won't be political, the more likely he is to turn off the grassroots activists (and political players) who may have supported him. "They missed an opportunity to trade on that hunger for meaningful participation," Rushkoff says. "They underestimated how far they could've gotten."
Maybe, in this age of corporate consolidation, launching a viable, independent media company is itself an act of political resistance. Yet one can't help getting the sense that Gore and Hyatt, by buying a network, lining up bigwig investors, hiring industry professionals and courting advertisers and cable operators, ended up doing new media in a decidedly old-fashioned way. Instead of transforming the media, the media business may have transformed them.