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Al Gore Gets Down

With Al Gore's progressive cable channel, what began as an effort to challenge the right-wing domination of the corporate media has transformed into a business proposition to lure a youth audience.
 
 
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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 Aug. 1, Current's launch date, could resemble 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 web site 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 90th, 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 Greene, 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.

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 U.S. households, but it gave Gore and Hyatt a launching pad. The 20 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 Humvee 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.

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 55-second submission on the web site 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.

Ari Berman writes The Nation's " Daily Outrage " weblog. He is a Ralph Shikes Fellow at the Public Concern Foundation.