As the Senate confirmation hearings of Michael Mukaskey as Attorney General morphed earlier this month into a debate over whether “waterboarding” was torture, Al Gore was pointing out one of the more provocative segments that’s run on Current TV, the cable network he founded along with Joel Hyatt.
It features one its correspondents, Kaj Larsen, demonstrating what “waterboarding” is by going through the technique himself.
“That is not something that you are going to see the mainstream reporters doing, and that is not something I would have necessarily have approved of in advance if I had known he was going to do it,” Gore said. “But I admire him for having the guts, and since this is being done right now in the name of the American people, six years running, it is of course time that we took a hard look at what is being done in our name.”
It’s that type of programming — what Gore calls “vanguard journalism” — that has helped put Current TV on the map, with the latest recognition coming Monday night in New York from the Intl. Academy of Television Arts & Sciences. The org is giving Gore a special Emmy Founders Award, recognizing not just his role in the creation of Current but his effort in alerting the world to global warming and the climate crisis.
It is the latest honor in a whirlwind of kudos attention on Gore this year.
In February, “An Inconvenient Truth” won the documentary Oscar, accepted by the pic’s director, Davis Guggenheim. In September, Gore and Hyatt accepted an Emmy at the primetime ceremony. And, of course, there is the Nobel Peace Prize, announced in October, which Gore will share with the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
“My cup runneth over, as the Bible says,” Gore said. “And I am very grateful that I have been able to play a useful role.”
Speaking from his home in Nashville on Nov. 2, he gave no indication that that “role” would extend to running for president in 2008, or that it ever would. In fact, Nov. 2 was an auspicious day for political observers: It was the filing deadline for the New Hampshire primary, and perhaps the last chance for Gore to get into the race.
Instead, as he loaded new Leopard software into his Apple computer, he spoke of his enthusiasm for Current TV and its potential to “democratize” television by using the Internet.
Current relies not just on a team of correspondents but on viewer- generated content submitted by its website, Current.com. These short segments, often 10 minutes or less in duration, are often posted on the Website for users to cast their votes on whether they merit a showing on the cable channel. As such, the Current programming is a kaleidoscope mix of segments, aimed at the 18-34 age group, on everything from the AIDS epidemic in Swaziland to a Manhattan proposal to make it illegal to feed pigeons.
“The recognition by our peers in the TV community is extremely important, and we are extremely grateful for it,” Gore said. “That recognition serves as validation and allows people who are intrigued but who are busy and pulled in hundreds of different directions, it allows them to say to themselves, ‘The industry as a whole has given its highest award to Current. I am going to check it out.’ ”
He said the primetime Emmy generated a spike in story submissions to Current, and for a while afterward the network was the No. 1 search term on Google.
The network, which has been profitable since the end of last year, is now viewed in more than 51 million homes in the U.S. and the U.K., and is drawing viewer-created content from throughout Europe, Asia, Africa and Australia.
Until recently, it hasn’t drawn the buzz of YouTube or Facebook. But Gore and Hyatt have resisted suggestions that they pursue a more traditional programming model of half-hour and hour shows. In fact, Current last month relaunched its website, making it easier to identify and find segments that have been shown on the cable channel.
“We always knew that the strategy would require us to wait a little while before the size of the audience grew to where we wanted it to be,” he said. “That is now beginning to happen. And we are getting ready to launch for the very first time our consumer marketing.”
It is a bit ironic that Gore is accepting an award from a medium that fell short of its potential.
Often lost in Gore’s career is that he has been a scholar of television. His senior thesis in 1969 under Richard Neustadt at Harvard was on television and the presidency, and even then he had some anxiety that the medium would come to depend on flash and sizzle over substance and reason. His book, “The Assault on Reason,” published in May, dissects the caustic and ignorant nature of much political discourse in the country. Among other things, he described a political system that still relies too heavily on 30-second campaign commercials.
“We are right now in a period of great vulnerability,” he wrote. “…When television became the primary source of information for the United States, the ‘marketplace of ideas’ changed radically. Most communication was only in one direction, with a sharp decline in participatory democracy.”
For instance, campaigns for contested midterm election races last year spent some 80% of their budgets on 30-second spots.
Contrast that to the early years of the medium. Gore cited the 1960 Nixon-Kennedy debates, followed by the creation of PBS, as some of the high points of “hope in the democratizing potential of television.”
“The extremely high-quality news programming that the networks invested heavily in during the first decades of television similarly produced a real surge of hope, and there is still a lot of high quality news and information programming,” he said. “I don’t want to demean or diminish it. But slowly and inexorably, the underlying architecture of television began to reshape the content. It is principally an advertising delivery mechanism to a mass audience, and is programmed essentially by a relatively small number of studios.
Concentrated media ownership, he said, has put pressure on short-term financial success. “The net result has been the hemorrhaging of news budgets, the redefinition of news divisions as profit centers, rather than platforms for public service. You know, the great 1976 movie ‘Network’ was presented as farce but emerged as prophecy.”
He does hold out big hopes for the potential of the Internet, but “television is still by far the most powerful medium.” That is why he and Hyatt pursued Current as a TV venture initially rather than a Website.
“We are in a time warp, where the digital revolution embodied in the Internet and digital media is clearly the wave of the future,” he said. “Television eventually, in the words of William Gibson, will be absorbed into the digital world. That hasn’t happened yet.”