Current TV and its interactive Web site are getting attention

[6 June 2008]

By Cary Darling

McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)

Before Current TV hit the air in late summer 2005, programming president David Neuman heard rumblings of an approaching apocalypse from all corners. No way could a fledgling network, even one with a famous co-founder named Al Gore, be constructed on the unreliable, shifting sands of viewer-generated content.

The thinking went something like this: Cute cats, dancing babies and risky stunts do not a network make.

“Everybody assumed that the quality of the product would be terrible, because they were looking at the average YouTube video as the standard,” Neuman recalls. “From the very beginning, we said we wanted to be, as one person said, the HBO of user-generated content.”

It was the hammer blow of Hurricane Katrina, which struck the Gulf Coast not long after the San Francisco-based Current launched, that proved to Neuman that he might be on to something. “We got some stuff uploaded from a kid with his digital camera and a laptop computer, and he told the story of going out in a small boat into the city to rescue people,” Neuman says in a phone interview. “It was more compelling, more authentic, more interesting and informative than anything I saw on any news network.”

Three years later, the shadow of impending doom no longer darkens Neuman’s door. Current TV and its interactive Web site - both are a mix of viewer-generated, citizen-journalism “pods” (stories), professionally reported news and lifestyle narratives and pop-culture effluvia - has media watchers buzzing.

Current started with 17 million households and is now in about 56 million homes in the U.S. and Europe. The channel won the 2007 Emmy for outstanding creative achievement in interactive television (yes, there is such a category), and some of its mini-documentaries - such as “From Russia With Hate” (about Russian skinheads) and “Getting Waterboarded” (in which journalist and former Navy SEAL Kaj Larsen volunteers to be waterboarded) have gotten notice in the media, both mainstream (ABC News) and nonmainstream (The Huffington Post).

The business world also is paying attention, though not always in a positive way. Current Media, the channel’s parent company, has filed for an IPO, generating not-so-glowing stories in the likes of Business Week magazine about the network’s overall financial health (headline: “Al Gore’s Convenient IPO”) as well as barbs from conservative media sites such as Newsbusters.org. (According to published reports, the network has yet to turn a profit, but Neuman can’t talk about financial matters until the IPO is settled.) No matter how the numbers shake out or how one feels about Gore and his politics, Current TV has become of the most intriguing upstart channels in a predictable TV universe. Along with other youth-oriented networks such as G4, Spike and Fuse, Current TV has shown that there are a variety of ways to reach the 18-34 age group, the demographic sweet spot for channels like this.

WHERE TO FIND CURRENT TV On cable: Carried on Time Warner (check local listings) and AT&T (Channel 189). On satellite: DirecTV (Channel 366) and Dish Network (Channel 196). On the Internet: current.com WHAT TO WATCH ON CURRENT Current Countdown: An hourlong block of “pods” based on a particular theme, 10 p.m. Monday-Friday. Daily Fix: Extended Play Choice cuts in new music, 9 p.m. Tuesdays. Vanguard: The best of Current’s professionally generated long-form documentaries, 9 p.m. Wednesdays. InfoMania: A tongue-in-cheek look at the media shenanigans of the week, 9 p.m. Thursdays.

With its freewheeling blend of news and cultural reports - stitched together with some viewer-created ads for major players such as Toyota and odd facts such as the most popular Google searches of the moment - it’s like stumbling into a nonfiction short-film festival. Topics range from how the cost of universal healthcare might be borne by younger workers to the dilemma faced by Muslim women in Turkey over whether to wear a head scarf.

“(The programming is) designed to be like a DJ on the dance floor,” Neuman says. “You’re always listening to the audience, sensing their mood, and then programming to that. ... We constantly adjust the mix to what’s going on in the world.”

Neuman, who had worked at Channel One, the classroom news channel aimed at young people, wasn’t quite sure what Gore and co-founder/entrepreneur Joel Hyatt had in mind when they first contacted him. But he soon realized they wanted him to think beyond usual TV parameters.

“When I was at Channel One, I was just overwhelmed with the aptitude this generation had for participation. ... (What) came to mind for me was doing things in short form, because that’s the way you really enable people to participate. It’s difficult to make a great half-hour of something, but it’s not difficult at all to make three or five compelling minutes.”

Current TV was also designed to be a two-screen experience, with material on current.com meant to supplement and enhance what’s on TV. “We know the majority of people who are watching Current in our young-adult audience have a laptop or computer in the same room,” Neuman says.

Viewers can vote on favorite videos and upload their own for consideration to be aired. These viewer-submitted videos are blended on the schedule with stories from professional tele-journalists. Neuman, who says Gore never gets involved in content decisions, estimates that 30 percent to 40 percent of the programming is created by viewers. Videos are archived on the site in case someone wants to watch one later.

(The station says submitted videos are fact-checked by producers, and if there are unanswered questions, the videos aren’t aired.)

“We profoundly believe in citizen journalism, but there are certain kinds of stories - either because they’re too dangerous or require enormous resources to do properly - that we couldn’t expect the citizen journalist to be able to do,” Neuman says. “So we created a team of people and they, in a sense, are the tip of the spear. ... They tackle the war-zone stories, the difficult and complex stories, stories that involve a lot of travel and research.”

While perhaps the best way to watch Current TV is to just turn it on and see what comes up next (as with YouTube, the videos are shown with buffer bars that let the viewer know how much time is remaining), Neuman realizes that some viewers prefer a more fixed schedule.

“The majority of opinion we get is (that viewers) like the fact that we go from a story about what’s going on Myanmar to a story about a new club in Sao Paolo or an interesting fashion trend in Africa,” he says. “But, for those who love appointment viewing, at 10 p.m. every Wednesday, we have our Vanguard franchise, which features some of the best of our long-form journalism reports. ... They can watch Daily Fix Extended Play Tuesday nights at 10, which is all music programming.”

Certainly, not everyone’s a fan of Current TV’s approach. Television historian and former Lifetime executive vice president Tim Brooks, who co-writes the popular “Complete Directory to Prime Time Network and Cable TV Shows” collections, dismissed the concept last year in The Philadelphia Inquirer.

“The whole concept of user-generated video is very thin, especially on television, where the overwhelming usage is by people who just want to turn on the box and watch,” he told the paper. “It will never attract a mass audience.”

But Bob Stepno, a professor at the School of Communication at Radford University in Virginia, thinks Current may be one way that journalism survives in the new information age. “They’re doing some serious storytelling. That (video) about the anti-immigrant movement in Russia was pretty serious journalism,” he says by phone. “We’re all looking for different journalism models that work and business models that support real journalism. If it means having an open site like this, where regular folks can do some of the journalism but (with) professional oversight, that is very healthy.”

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/article/current-tv-and-its-interactive-web-site-are-getting-attention/