Gore's Italo web fills need for unbiased news

ROME — Al Gore’s Current TV is feeding an Italian craving for serious news in the Silvio Berlusconi era and helping to redefine the founder’s vision for an unconventional, unbiased, in-depth news channel.

Just a few months after the localized Current Italia started beaming on Rupert Murdoch’s Sky Italia in 2008, the channel’s general manager, Tommaso Tessarolo, was given the freedom to reboot it.

He threw out the model that San Francisco-based Current TV had been using Stateside since its 2005 inception — five-minute news pods, many of them user-generated, and replaced it with longform news pieces.

“But we remain close to the original vision of Al Gore, who wants to democratize TV,” Tessarolo says.

Current CEO Mark Rosenthal, the ex-MTV exec who took over as topper in 2009, says Gore’s original attempt to reinvent news journalism with video shorts tied closely to the Internet was unique. “But it didn’t really work,” he adds.

Since then, Current Italia has been a beacon for the company in several ways, says Rosenthal, who also oversees Current’s British incarnation, which was set up in 2007.

Tessarolo has built the Italo channel around Current’s signature “Vanguard” documentary series, which Rosenthal calls “the only boots-on-the-ground show on TV in the U.S.” next to CBS’ “60 Minutes.”

Independent information is hard to come by in Italy, where most media is influenced by political or business interests, or both.

The Freedom House media index, an annual survey of media independence in 195 countries and territories, ranks Italy at 73, behind the West African country of Benin.

No wonder then, that when the journos in the “Vanguard” team came to Italy’s Perugia Intl. Journalism Festival, they were greeted like rock stars.

Tessarolo began commissioning docus about lightly covered local news stories, which have included investigative pieces about the unresolved Naples garbage crisis and the country’s Vatican-influenced in vitro fertilization legislation permits only three embryos to be fertilized per woman at a time and requires implantation of all that are viable.

Current Italia beamed PBS documentary “Citizen Berlusconi,” about the consequences of handing a media mogul political power, which had aired on all the main European pubcasters. “But nobody had even thought of airing it in Italy,” Tessarolo says.

Now the network is in post-production on a five-episode docu series titled “Vatican Insider,” its biggest production to date. Tessarolo calls the docu “scathing.”

Current Italia was also the first local TV channel to air a special with Roberto Saviano, the bestselling author of Neapolitan mob expose “Gomorrah,” who lives under police protection. And when pubcaster RAI temporarily shut down leftist journo Michele Santoro’s political talkshow “Annozero,” Current carried it live from Italian piazzas.

“In this multichannel world, you have to promise the viewer something very specific and keep your promise,” Tessarolo says.

That’s how Current Italia has gotten the best ratings of the three Current channels, as well as viewer loyalty figures that are among the top for Sky Italia channels, great brand recognition, and a vibrant interaction with its online community, with some 100,000 users a day.

And Tessarolo suggests that Italy’s bent for news shows centered around strong, opinionated personalities may even have inspired Current’s recent hire of Keith Olbermann Stateside, after MSNBC did not renew his “Countdown” contract.

“Keith Olbermann, aside from what you perceive his political leanings to be, is one the most important provocateurs that has ever been on American television,” Rosenthal says. “He speaks truth to power. He is engaging and dynamic and riveting television. He talks about important things that need to be talked about.”

Positioning Current Italia as an independant information channel made sense for the country’s philosophy.

“It could also apply to +the U.S. which, let’s face it, is certainly not as bad as Italy,” Tessarolo says, “but is still not an independant TV news holy land.”

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