Gore’s Start-Up Comes Into Focus

Apr 18, 2005  •  Post A Comment

The president of programming for Current, Al Gore’s start-up effort, said the network will not be a news channel, as was widely believed, but rather a venue for all forms of amateur video.

“This has to be a compelling and popular network, and we’re not going to look down our noses at what our audience is interested in,” said David Neuman, who formerly held executive posts at CNN and NBC. “I don’t see it as a news channel, very honestly.”

Instead, Mr. Neuman’s mandate includes opening the network to any video product that is engaging to young people-from the infamous “Star Wars Kid” clip that circulated on the Internet a couple of years ago to a cellphone photo of a celebrity behaving badly in public.

“There will be some territorial overlap to traditional news, but young people are also very interested in their careers, their spiritual lives, how to manage their money and how to pursue relationships,” he said.

Since the unveiling of Current during the National Cable & Telecommunications Association conference in San Francisco two weeks ago, insiders have speculated about whether the Internet-inspired combination of MTV and CNN can successfully pack a slate with amateur content.

Former Vice President Gore and entrepreneur Joel Hyatt plan to launch the network this fall in 19 million subscriber homes, most of which have DirecTV. Current will showcase youthful hosts introducing news and youth-culture videos. The clips range from 15 seconds to 15 minutes long and cover topics as diverse as civil unrest in Sudan to the urban sport of roof-jumping in Chicago. The hook is that about half of the videos will be shot, edited and submitted to the network by viewers (or as Current calls them, “citizen journalists”).

Two years ago, such a concept would have been dismissed outright. But with the rise of blogging and the increasing ease of creating amateur video content, the Current model has a certain cutting-edge allure. Yet experts warn that amateur programming is notoriously unreliable and fraught with inherent problems.

“People don’t go to potlucks to have great meals,” said cable consultant Ray Solley. “The reason ‘America’s Funniest Home Videos’ only shows 10-second snippets is because that’s the only part that really works. Simply to assume there’s great untapped masterpieces out there and ‘if you build it they will come’ hasn’t yet been proven, certainly not on the scale they’re trying to do it on.”

Brad Adgate, media analyst for Horizon Media, gave a mixed assessment of Current’s prospects.

“The median age for the news networks are in the 50s and 60s,” Mr. Adgate said. “Newspapers give out free editions for young adults to get them to read the newspaper and they just don’t do it. If MTV thought there was a young audience for news, they would have put out a network.”

On the other hand, Mr. Adgate added, “If Gore can prove he can deliver young viewers, he’ll do very well in the ad community. And I like the name.”

Mr. Neuman said he’s been impressed by the quality of video submissions he’s received so far and said he understands the challenges of programming the network.

“We’re very aware of what sort of new frontier we’re on,” he said. “We’re trying to be something that has never existed before. But if you want to succeed you need to do something very different.”

The devil, however, is in the details: Who is responsible for the actions of Current’s amateur contributors? How will Current know if its freelancers are providing accurate and truthful content? Can contributors be trusted to get releases from every person in every shot? What if a contributor gets hurt making a video?

Liability Concerns

That last is a problem that’s plagued the amateur genre. MTV’s stunt show “Jackass” was inspired by a homemade video created by star Johnny Knoxville, but MTV pulled the series after viewers were hurt making their own versions. Even contributors to ABC’s innocuous “America’s Funniest Home Videos” have had their share of injuries in pursuit of 15 seconds of fame. With Current featuring videos about the world’s largest marijuana field, not to mention the roof jumping and civil unrest in Sudan, the concept seems fraught with liability concerns.

“I think he won’t have any problem getting content,” said “Funniest Videos” creator and executive producer Vin Di Bona, who counts himself as an acquaintance of Mr. Gore. “But when you’re asking people to do something, you got to tell them to do it safely.”

Mr. Neuman said the high-risk clips shown at NCTA were all shot by Current’s in-house production crew and that the issue of contributor safety is a real concern.

“We intend to offer quite a bit of online advice and training for citizen journalists, and it will include appropriate cautions,” he said. “One of the reasons we have an in-house unit of professionals is that there are many situations … that involve unacceptable or unnecessary risk and danger for amateurs.”

Current’s 19 million subscribers were acquired when Mr. Gore, Mr. Hyatt (a prominent attorney and Democratic fund-raiser) and about 20 other investors, including Sun Microsystems co-founder Bill Joy and former MTV and AOL executive Bob Pittman, bought a news network called Newsworld International from Vivendi Universal last May for about $70 million.

Current refuses to provide any details about its financing other than to say it does not plan to seek a second round of investment.

Kagan senior analyst Derek Baine said gaining 19 million subscribers for $70 million is a good deal and, “If [Current can] make a go of it, they can get a pretty significant appreciation of the value of the network.”

The bulk of Current’s carriage is on DirecTV, raising the prospect of ideological wrestling between the satellite provider’s controlling asset owner News Corp., which is run by conservative mogul Rupert Murdoch, and the Democratic leader. But the Newsworld acquisition was announced six months after News Corp’s acquisition of DirecTV. And though Current won’t reveal the length of its contract, Mr. Baine estimated that Current likely has at least five years on the satellite system until it needs to negotiate a renewal.

That leaves gaining interest of cable operators, which is difficult for any start-up network, even one helmed by a former vice president.

Current’s Mark Goldman said the network has not sought any additional carriage until now, electing to wait until after announcing its name and programming model at NCTA.

In the distribution marketplace, however, interest is expensive. Gaining carriage often depends on how much a network is willing to pay-in content, capital and/or an ownership stake. Mr. Goldman refused to say whether Current would be willing to sell off part of its company in exchange for carriage.

Still, according to media analyst Larry Gerbrandt, if any start-up network has a shot at gaining carriage, it’s Current.

“This is one of those channels that can break through and gain additional carriage if the programming clicks,” Mr. Gerbrandt said. “I think they should be credited for trying to do something very different. There are challenges, but if the youth culture adopts this as their channel, it could be the next MTV.”