By the end of this weekend, Al Gore will have completed what could be described as the Hollywood loop: He will have been to the Grammys, the Oscars and, on Sunday, the Emmys.
He and business partner Joel Hyatt are nominated for Current TV, their two-year-old cable network that’s aimed at the 18-34 demo and younger and that depends in part on viewer- generated content. Although Internet sites like YouTube, MySpace and Facebook draw the lion’s share of attention, Current TV is available in 41 million U.S. homes and has been profitable since the end of last year.
Current is making its Emmy debut the same year that the Academy has decided to present the interactive TV nod at the live telecast instead of at the lower-profile Creative Arts Awards ceremony. Also nominated in the interactive category are MLB Mosaic, Bravo Media, DisneyChannel.com Broadband Video Player and BIAP Fantasy Football Television Tracker.
The shift to the primetime telecast, Hyatt said, shows the importance the TV Academy is placing on the award.
Gore, who was a presenter at the Grammys (he used the occasion to round up talent for the Live Earth concerts) and attended the Oscars as part of the team behind winning doc “An Inconvenient Truth,” said the Emmy nom for Current “is an exciting recognition of the quality of user-generated content and the quality of the work of the people who are making this network hum every day.”
Current TV launched Aug. 1, 2005, after Gore and Hyatt, along with an investment team, bought the Canadian news network Newsworld Intl. for a reported $70 million. Defying the expectations of many observers, who assumed that they would launch a progressive alternative to Fox News, they created a network of eclectic programming in so-called pods, short segments often less than 10 minutes in duration, touching on everything from student loan practices to the crystal meth crisis to International Talk Like a Pirate Day.
At times, the channel’s programming can resemble a film festival of short subjects. In the recent mix, for example, was a segment on architect Santiago Calatrava and a viewer-submitted piece on the Kibera slums in Nairobi.
About one-third of the programming comes from viewers who submit their shorts and see them posted online for viewers to vote on what they want to see on air.
There was skepticism that such a network could succeed, but some validation has come with the rise of YouTube and, more importantly, with TV news outlets like ABC News and CNN calling for their own citizen-generated video. Most new cable nets try to achieve traction with a few signature programs or personalities, but Gore and Hyatt said that they have not been tempted to adopt more traditional formats, like a 30-minute network-style newscast.
“Rather than us trying to be like them, we are sometimes tempted to be flattered that they are trying to be like us,” Gore said.
Still, Current TV faces a number of challenges. Nielsen does not yet measure its audience. It has made strides in adding subscribers on Comcast and Dish Network (it also has carriage agreements with DirecTV, AT&T U-Verse and Time Warner Cable), but on Time Warner systems, for example, it resides on the more expensive upper digital tier, perhaps out of reach of a twentysomething’s budget.
And as much as Current TV aims to allow a wider scope of voices to be heard and important stories to be seen, some of the biggest sensations in viewer-generated content have been on sites like TMZ.com — e.g., Michael Richards’ diatribe at the Laugh Factory.
“There is a room and a place for everything,” Hyatt said. “YouTube is a place for people to put up films of their pet cat or their Aunt Tilly’s 90th birthday party. And there is a place for that, and that is fine. It is not what we set out to do. We set out to be the high-quality provider of user-generated content or really passionate storytellers with a point of view that they want to share with their generational cohorts.”
Gore believes that the other sites’ content “maybe builds (viewer) appreciation for what we have on the air.”
What’s more, he and Hyatt profess no regrets at launching as a cable network, as opposed to initially trying to gain traction on the Web.
“That gets to our core vision. Most of what you see at the boundary of television and the Internet involves TV programming cannibalized for the Internet,” Gore said. “We have actually reversed the flow by using the Internet as part of our core production infrastructure in order to connect to the thousands of young creators of our content who are able to send programming to us.”
“We couldn’t bypass TV,” Hyatt said. “It is simply too powerful a communications device and still is, even for young adults. They are rabid Internet users, but their television consumption is quite high. We just have the conviction that we can innovate on television and make that powerful important platform participatory.”
An Emmy win would undoubtedly bolster Current TV’s plans for a new branding push. It’s also recent expanded into Europe, adding 11 million homes in the United Kingdom on BSkyB and Virgin Media. Gore and Hyatt decline to go into specifics, but plans are in the works for new Internet and mobile offerings.
Gore also said they do have special plans for the 2008 election — the campaign for which already is reaching new benchmarks in the use of user-generated video.
Which brings up a natural question about Gore’s own plans. He’s given no indication that he plans to run for president, even though he’s bound to be asked the question on Sunday when he strolls the Emmy red carpet at the Shrine Auditorium. But if he truly has no plans to run, will he endorse a candidate?
“I haven’t decided yet,” Gore said. “I probably will, but I haven’t decided yet.”