Thursday, November 10, 2005

Does Al Gore really hold the future of the TV industry?

Remember Al Gore? You know, the guy who was supposed to win (well, probably did win) the 2000 Presidential race but somehow never made it to the White House? We haven't heard much from him since those dark days. Following his defeat in the Supreme Court, he famously grew a beard, briefly taught graduate journalists at Columbia, and has been spending more time back in his native Tennessee, where he is steadily rebuilding bridges in his home state (which notoriously failed to vote for him in 2000) as rumors persist that he'll make another presidential run in 2008. Wikipedia also lists his current activities as chairing a company called Generation Investment Management, sitting on Apple Computer's board of directors, and serving "as an unofficial advisor to Google's senior management."

The role that has recently drawn the most attention to Gore - certainly in media circles - is his partnership in the new cable and web TV enterprise, Current TV, which went on air on August 1 this year. Gore and partner Joel Hyatt have set up the new network - based in San Francisco - in an effort to do something radically different with television. It seems like he might be on to something. Here's how a recent USA Today article ("Akimbo, Current Media could embody TV's next generation") introduces us to the operation.
    Two decades ago, if you wanted to see how cable would change TV, you might've visited Turner Broadcasting and MTV, just to soak up what was going on. Today, there's no question the Internet is going to alter television — not make TV go away, but make it different. So whom do you visit to check out where this is heading? Could be a lot of contenders, but while I'm in San Francisco, I can hit two on the same day: Current and Akimbo.

Akimbo, btw, is another nascent TV hybrid operation that seems to act like a "super-TiVO" for "niche video-almost-on-demand". Its main claim to fame seems to be that it's being run by a chap called Will Hearst, who apparently is a grandson of 19th Century newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst. But the Current TV operation sounds like it's the more interesting venture of the two. As USA Today notes, Gore and Hyatt are thinking about television in a very different way," as they attempt to integrate TV and web operations more symbiotically than ever before. "Current is using the Internet to make its viewers a meaningful part of the TV channel. More than 30% of the segments on Current are produced by amateurs and are sent in through the website." (I haven't got to see the TV version yet, but I have dug around on the web site to see the type of material being submitted and aired.)
    Here's how the system works: Anyone can use a digital video camcorder to create a five-minute story — or “pod” in the Current lingo — and upload it to Then the site's users view the pods and vote on them. The pods that rise to the top — a sliver of the number sent in — are considered for the Current TV channel.

    Before launch, Current executives thought they'd be lucky to get enough good-quality content from viewers to fill maybe 5% of airtime, says Joanna Drake Earl, who runs Current's Web operations. But they were amazed at what came in. “It looks and feels different, but we love the rawness,” she says.

    So the channel has wound up with pods about religious-themed haunted funhouses, amateur kickball and young Afghans who work out with weights while admiring 1970s posters of Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Back in early August, right after the station started operations, NPR ran a piece that noted how the station was designed to "snag the short attention span of young people who don't normally watch the news." Clearly, though, no-one back then had a clear idea whether this exercise in truly interactive TV would take off. NPR quoted commentator (and USC professor) Todd Boyd, who refelected that the programming looked a little like "a cross between an earlier version of MTV, CNN, and the Internet." Boyd focused on how it was hard to imagine Al Gore being associated with anything "hip." Yet three months later, it seems as if Gore has hit upon something that connects to "the kids."

USA Today concludes: "For the past decade, the Internet has opened the door for people and subjects that wouldn't otherwise make it into mainstream media. Current is now using that opening to change mainstream media. And the industry is paying attention."

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