martes, diciembre 05, 2006

La TV de la mano de Al Gore



Hace un año y medio Al Gore creó Current TV, una cadena de TV estructurada sobre la base del denominado Viewer Created Content (VC2), contenidos realizados por creadores independientes utilizando cámaras domésticas, móviles con cámara o el propio computador personal. La cadena de el ex vicepresidente de EE.UU. ha generado una serie de artículos sobre los cambios que está viviendo la TV en ese país y el concepto de noticia -o historia- televisiva. A pesar que este blog se identifica con el pensamiento y obsesiones de Gore, este artículo de The Nation recuerda algunas de sus contradicciones, las virtudes y defectos de su cadena de TV y el futuro del negocio. www.thenation.com/doc/20050516/berman/1

Por The Nation
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 August 1, Current's
launch date, could re-semble 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
website 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 ninetieth, 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 Green, 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
US households, but it gave Gore and Hyatt a launching
pad. The twenty 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 Hum-vee 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
fifty-five-second submission on the website 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.

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