The television will be revolutionized

Al Gore promises that Current TV will be as interactive and democratic as the Internet. But already his restless young audience is wondering whether the network will be another rerun.

Published July 11, 2005 4:48PM (EDT)

Josh Wolf, a 23-year-old college student who lives in San Francisco, is a filmmaker. Wolf is not, it's important to note, an aspiring filmmaker, that well-known species of young auteur willing to bide time in a series of tedious, steppingstone entertainment-biz jobs just to get a foot in Hollywood's front door. No, Wolf is the sort of filmmaker who actually makes films -- dozens of them, whenever the mood strikes him, about whatever he finds compelling. In recent months, a name for what Wolf does has come into fashion -- video blogging, or (gasp) "vlogging," -- but Wolf's films aren't simply a video version of a blog. Wolf is instead one of a number of tech-age documentarians who are setting up shop on the Web, a young person with a camera, a computer, server space, and a gut instinct for what's exciting and controversial and merits recording. To Wolf, that includes antiwar marches, anti-military protests, and lefty mayoral campaigns.

All of which is to say that Wolf was excited about participating in Al Gore's television revolution. More than a year ago, amid much fanfare, the former vice president joined several investors in an effort to create a television network for young people, a TV channel that specifically aimed to harness the energy that animates filmmakers like Wolf. From the beginning, Gore promised not just a TV network but a media revolution; like MTV, his channel would be for the youth market, but unlike anything we've seen before, the network would also be by young people, with much of the programming contributed by viewers armed with cameras.

"The Internet opened a floodgate for young people, whose passions are finally being heard, but TV hasn't followed suit," Gore told a crowd of supporters -- Wolf among them -- at a pre-launch party for the network held in San Francisco in April. "Our aim is to give young people a voice, to democratize television."

As Gore and his partners see it, TV today is a staid medium, one that can't match the interactivity of the Internet. But new technology -- cheap digital cameras and easy-to-use laptop-based editing tools -- have given young people new chances to televise their lives, to document what happens to them in ways that we don't see on CNN and the broadcast networks. "How many of you would like to see an opportunity to talk about what's going on in our world -- that you can participate in with television?" Gore asked the party revelers. On Aug. 1, when Current TV launches on several satellite and cable TV systems -- reaching, at first, about 19 million households -- Gore believes young people will finally get that opportunity.

But while Current will be televised, it's not at all clear that the revolution Gore has promised will make it to the screen. You can't argue with Gore's planned innovations -- interactivity, openness, a willingness to tell stories that buck the mainstream. What remains to be seen is whether his network can realize the goals without compromise. Television is a tough business, one in which entrenched interests -- advertisers, investors, politicians -- pull many strings. Gore says he wants to create a TV network that embodies the freewheeling air of the Web. But skeptics wonder if Current will really tell young people the stories nobody else will tell, the stories -- about the Downing Street memo, say, or Bush's bulge, or rumors of election fraud -- that often first emerge online.

Some Current observers say the former vice president's network looks less like a plan to remake TV than an attempt to make money by going after the lucrative youth market. In the past few months, many young filmmakers who initially saw Current as a perfect way to showcase their creativity have begun to change their minds about the network. Late last year, the network disappointed throngs of its most passionate supporters when it suddenly canceled an effort to hire hundreds of "digital correspondents" to work on its staff. The correspondents were to be full-time Current employees who'd roam the nation -- and possibly the world -- looking for provocative stories to bring to television. Thousands of people applied for the positions, and the network's unexplained cancellation of the program created a trail of ill will among the videographers. Contributors now work on a contract basis rather than as staff; the network says this is a "more democratic" practice than the digital correspondents program because anyone is free to send videos to the network.

Activist filmmakers like Wolf say that despite Current TV's revolutionary rhetoric, the station appears uninterested in hard-hitting political footage. As Ari Berman pointed out in the Nation in April, "'politics' is simply another word in Current's programming lineup, not a guiding theme." Wolf, who created a San Francisco "Meetup" group to bring other filmmakers to the network, says Current's rhetoric rings hollow. "My beef is not what they're doing, but the difference between what they're saying and what they're doing," he says. "I want to make television that makes people think. But I worry that Current TV seems to be making television that's very similar to other television. Television that you don't have to think about."

Of course, it's easy -- not to mention unfair -- to criticize a television network before it has even turned the lights on. David Neuman, the network's programming chief, responds that Current's revolution is not about politics or political leanings but about openness to feedback and contributions from its viewers. Current's decision not to focus on social-issues programming is deliberate, he says. He explains that Current's shows, called "pods," will cater to young people's broad interests: The schedule will include political and current-affairs programs, but it will also feature entertainment, sex, and lifestyle shows about parenting and managing your money. "We're going to democratize the medium of television," Neuman says, "but that's 'democratize' with a small d."

A "pod," Neuman explains, is a short show built around a theme. Each pod has a title and a subject. "We have a pod about spirituality called Current: Soul, or a pod about technology called Current: Tech, and a pod about money called Currency, and a pod about sexy people called the Current Hottie," Neuman says. "It's a systematic and quite lengthy list of subjects that are of interest to our audience."

Each pod will feature short nonfiction films built around the pod's theme. At first, Current itself will produce many of these videos. But Neuman says that when the network goes live, slightly more than 20 percent of the video shorts it broadcasts will be those submitted by viewers -- and, as the network grows, it hopes to show even more viewer-submitted short films. Neuman says that he's been pleasantly surprised by videos people have sent to Current. "It's turned out to be more, and better, than we expected."

Current has posted some of its best video submissions on its Web site. And they do cover a wide range. Some are funny, some are compelling, a couple are brilliant, and a few are boring and banal. Tamara Straus wrote recently in San Francisco magazine that because the films are short, many lack narrative depth. That's one problem; another is that many appear safe. For instance, a video about homelessness in New York reveals that being homeless is no fun. Viewers might wish it presented a novel, unpredictable opinion on the issue, or a deeper sense of outrage, or anger. It's difficult to find a non-mainstream point of view in the videos; politically, they stray neither too far left nor too far right. Just now, there's little on Current's site that would seem out of place on ordinary TV.

Neuman disagrees with the suggestion that Current is safe. The network, he says, won't shy away from uncomfortable or controversial videos, and, indeed, he expects people making such films will send them to Current. For one thing, Neuman argues, Current pays well. The network will pay $250 for a first film, a rate that can rise to $1,000 for people whose work Current uses frequently. The money, Neuman says, will give filmmakers an incentive to look for stories that go uncovered by other media, especially in places where American news organizations don't have much presence. He pointed to the work of Yasmin Vossoughian, an Iranian-American filmmaker who, on a recent trip to Iran, documented the sex lives of young people there. (Her film, "Coming Out: The Youth of Iran," won second place in a recent Current contest.) Current, Neuman says, stands a good chance of finding such films in other parts of the world. "Wouldn't it be fantastic if we had citizen journalists in Gaza right now, or Tel Aviv or Damascus or Beirut, seeing it with their own eyes and showing it to us?"

But even if Current does manage to attract controversial videos, some critics argue that the network may have an overriding incentive to keep a lid on the most outré stuff, and to keep what it broadcasts close to the mainstream. Like every other TV channel, Current will need advertisers to stay in business. Gore and his fellow investors -- who include, among others, several tech-biz heavyweights like Bill Joy, Bob Pittman and Rob Glaser, and Hollywood Democratic Party insiders such as Warren Lieberfarb and Bradley Whitford of "The West Wing" -- have sunk more than $70 million into Current TV. It's only natural to expect them to do everything they can to get the money back. Additionally, the economics associated with a new television network -- or, for that matter, any new, large media property -- aren't attractive; profits, if they ever come, usually materialize only after years of losing money.

So to attract advertisers, Current will need ratings. For ratings, it will need content that, while perhaps edgy or even controversial, is not so off-putting, demanding or radical that it turns people away. In other words, as Jeff Jarvis, the popular blogger and new-media consultant, points out, television, even cable TV, is a mass-market medium. In order to survive, it needs to tell stories that appeal to many people. And the moment Current heads down that road, much of what it airs will look very similar to traditional, old-style TV.

Current insists that advertisers will not play a role in what the network decides to broadcast. When Gore and Joel Hyatt, Current's CEO, created the network, they made it plain that "we'll have control over the editorial product and advertisers won't," Neuman says. "There's a church-state relationship there, and we are confident that advertisers will embrace that agenda. We haven't made any compromises in order to suck up to advertisers."

Current will give viewers a chance to participate in programming decisions in two ways: First, it will let people submit their own videos, and second, it will give viewers a chance to vote on which videos should make it to the air. In an April interview with the NPR show "On the Media," Neuman compared Current's video-selection process to the model of "American Idol." "I think 'American Idol' is in the gene pool of this network," he said. "We love that. I think we think of that as a form of democratizing the television medium that we think is a cool thing."

A spokesman for Current told Salon that all videos that viewers submit to the network will be put online immediately for people to watch, and to vote on. But as part of its submission policy, Current will prohibit its contributors from posting their videos on their own Web sites for three months after they submit the videos to Current, a limitation that Neuman described as reasonable.

Some observers criticized this policy. By limiting where viewers can post their films, Current could be cutting itself off from some of the best of the new video bloggers, says J.D. Lasica, a media consultant and the author of "Darknet: Hollywood's War Against the Digital Generation." Filmmakers who are used to creating and distributing media through the Web "have an expectation of immediacy for their material," Lasica says. "You put something together and you want to put it online. You want to get it out there." And as Jarvis points out, bloggers are wary of strictures imposed by big media firms. "I recently wrote a piece for a magazine, I won't say which one," Jarvis says. "Well, they came along and did a butchery edit, blood on the tracks everywhere. My response was, Screw it, I'll blog it." Some of the Web's best producers may react the same way to Current's policies, Jarvis says.

There's another important question to ask about Current's plans to make TV more like the Web: If we've got the Web already, what's the point? In the months since Gore first unveiled his idea, media created by "amateurs" has exploded online. We're not just talking about blogs but also podcasts, video blogs, animation, and some completely novel ways of keeping yourself entertained. If young people are looking for interactivity, why would they go to TV for it?

Several video bloggers are asking themselves the same question. Steve Garfield, a professional film producer in Boston who's been maintaining a video blog for several months, says that he was initially quite interested in Current. Last year, when Current put out a call to hire a team of correspondents, Garfield applied. But after Current decided not to hire correspondents, Garfield began devoting more time to his video blog -- and he found that he could attract a large following even without being on TV. Garfield's films document the highlights of his married life as well as his various personal interests -- tech conferences, local news events, art shows. It's not exactly cutting-edge TV, but there is a certain voyeuristic thrill in watching some of Garfield's videos. Perhaps for that reason, his films are relatively popular; at least a few hundred people, and sometimes more than a couple thousand, watch each of Garfield's videos, and more people come to him every day, Garfield says. It's not throngs, certainly, and if Garfield's videos were on Current, he could very well find more viewers. But Garfield says that the creative control he'd need to give up wouldn't be worth it. Better, he says, to try to make a go of his work by himself.

The creators of Rocketboom, one of the most popular video blogs on the Web, and a show whose youthful spark would seem natural for Current, also say that the TV network's restrictions would keep them away. Rocketboom -- which Amanda Congdon, an actress, and Andrew Baron, a Web designer, created last fall -- is a daily three-minute Web-based newscast that attracts more than 200,000 people every week (that's more viewers that some shows on cable TV). The program has become so popular so fast that Baron and Congdon are on the verge of signing advertisers to their endeavor; they expect to make a nice profit from the venture, Congdon says. Consequently, they have no interest in submitting their work to Current. "We attribute the success of Rocketboom to letting our videos have the furthest reach possible," Congdon says. Anyone can watch Rocketboom at anytime -- that wouldn't be possible if Rocketboom were on Current, Congdon notes.

Of course, one way to make TV more like the Web -- more "on demand" -- is to use a digital video recorder like TiVo to slice and dice what's on according to your personal preferences. But Current, like all other TV networks, isn't so hot on TiVo. In May, Karl Carter, one of the network's advertising executives, told an advertising trade Web site that Current plans to stagger its advertising between programs in a way that will "prevent people with DVR from skipping over our ads, making us 'TiVo proof.'" Neuman says that he doesn't believe TiVo will hurt Current because Current's ads -- some of which will also be created by viewers -- will be innovative enough that people will want to watch them, not skip them.

Neuman acknowledged that there may be some videos on Current that people will want to skip. But Neuman also says that Current understands that today's young people are fond of multitasking -- keeping the TV on while they surf the Web, chat on I.M., or play video games. Current, Neuman says, understands this "two-screen experience": Some of the videos on Current will be compelling enough to demand your full attention, but at other times you can just keep Current on in the background, while you spend the bulk of your time reading your favorite blog.

"Maybe in the long term, we'll be in an on-demand society and Current will be served up the way you want it," Neuman says. "Until then, we're offering a unique television experience. Just like you have a default home page on the Internet, we want to be the default channel on your TV. You'll keep it on Current to be apprised of what's going on, a nonstop flow of cool information." Current, Neuman insists, will be more interactive, and more open, than anything else on TV, and though some of its restrictions may upset a small number of people, most will see something truly great in what it's doing. "For some people, the perfect is always the enemy of the good," Neuman says of Current's critics. "But I think our mission is great."

This story has been corrected since it was originally published.

By Farhad Manjoo

Farhad Manjoo is a Salon staff writer and the author of True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society.

MORE FROM Farhad Manjoo

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Al Gore