San Francisco — That one looks like an overgrown fish with wings. The next looks like a bow-legged giraffe made out of electrical wires. And that guy seems to be getting around the desert on an ice cooler with wheels.
All are part of a one-minute, 59-second segment on “mutated vehicles” produced by Justin Gunn, director of online programming for Current TV, the San Francisco-based digital cable network service founded by former vice president Al Gore.
“Through sheer blood, sweat and tears, we cracked the code of good, fast and cheap” programming, said Gunn.
Now all he needs is viewers.
Gunn headed up a crew of eight that Current sent in two recreational vehicles to a desert basin at Black Rock City, Nev., just before Labor Day. Their task: Capture all the sights and sounds of the annual counterculture arts event known as the Burning Man Festival.
One RV served as living quarters for the crew. The other was the programmer’s own form of mutated vehicle: a rolling studio. Inside were two editing suites. Another could be erected under a canopy outside. They ran on Apple Macintosh Mini personal computers, about the size of a cigar box.
The crew produced between nine and 15 minutes of edited video each day. A typical narrative: A short piece of “participant-created content” that involved people dressed as animals, a “Burning Man virgin” named Shiloh and an unexpected conclusion in a blinding dust storm. Then came the finale: Current’s first attempt at live programming online, a one-hour presentation of the burning of the 40-foot tall wooden effigy that gives the festival its name.
Total out-of-pocket cost (not counting salaries) for two hours of Web programming: $30,000.
Not really tuned into Current? You’re hardly alone.
This media venture was founded “at the intersection of the Internet and television,” on Aug. 1, 2005. So far, its coverage of youth culture, music, fashion, technology and news reaches only about 16 million cable homes, almost exclusively on digital tiers belonging to Time Warner and Comcast Corp. Its biggest exposure is on DirecTV, which beams it to 13.8 million homes across the country. Its audience, all told, is too small to be rated.
Its biggest claim to fame has been the star power of its founders, former Vice President Al Gore and his partner, Joel Hyatt.
Gore is the best known of the two, having almost been president. Hyatt started the H&R Block of low-cost law firms, Hyatt Legal Services, and has a political bent as well, having run as a Democrat for the U.S. Senate in Ohio.
But what Current likes to lay claim to is being the video service that kick-started the whole concept of “user-generated content” that has become the rage of the Internet this year, through such video-sharing sites as YouTube.com, Revver and Google Video; as well as the social networking site, MySpace.com.
“We have been aggressively copied,” Hyatt said the day after Labor Day in his office across from AT&T Park.
In Current notation, its “core” innovation was something it calls “VC2” or “VC squared.” Viewer-created content.
Among the starkest examples: On-the-spot coverage of the effects of Hurricane Katrina. While talent made famous by the storm, such as CNN’s Anderson Cooper, had to stay on the outside of the flooded parts of New Orleans, Current was pulling in — and telecasting — a report from a 24-year-old Cajun named Jared Arsement. “This kid was in,” said Hyatt. The viewers’ reward? They got to see Arsement’s home — as his flat-bottom boat passed over it.
Perhaps most critically to Current, the real-life video came from a young man in his 20s. Current’s target audience is 18-to-34-year-old Americans. With Current, “they can all be journalists,” said Hyatt. In any case, they can all report on what interests them; and, if it passes muster with Current editors, see it get on the air.
That’s a key differentiator for Current, in Hyatt and Gore’s eyes. The network has editors, people who maintain journalistic standards, make sure facts get checked and that reports have an acceptable level of quality. Video that appears unfiltered on YouTube would not make it onto Current.
“We’d like to be the HBO” of viewer-created video, said David Neuman, Current’s president of programming.
Current may be a “really noble experiment,” said Robert J. Thompson, founding director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University. But he does not compare it to HBO.
RADICAL TO MAINSTREAM
The network “has kind of taken the worst of MTV and the worst of the Internet and joined them together,” he says. It’s a conflux of scheduling unexpected bits of supposedly high-energy clips, aimed at a youthful audience, sometimes made by that same audience and then hoping that audience will come to watch, even if it does not have any idea what will come next.
The founders of Current were proponents of putting up viewer-created content alongside professionally created content from its start. But expectations a year ago were pretty low. It projected that 10% of its content might come from viewers — and, Neuman said, the network was prepared to produce all its video segments itself.
To help create armies of self-motivated producers, its Web site was chocked full of instructions on how to create, edit and polish video and audio and stocked with tools to help.
Now, it’s hard to remember that just a year ago Current’s idea was considered radical. MTV, ESPN, NBC, CBS, ABC, CNN and even Web sites such as MySpace.com are following suit. “We find ourselves ahead of a huge parade,” said Neuman. “And we thought we’d be marching by ourselves.”
But it’s a process that doesn’t get automated. Editors develop relationships with their viewer-producers, just as they do with their own in-house reporters, according to Laura Ling, a producer and reporter who heads up the company’s “journalism department.” Questions and suggestions are handled on the fly, during production and submission.
Most of the network’s big “gets” still come from teams sent out on assignment to hot spots around the world. Example: an interview with the president and vice president of Hezbollah’s youth organization at the American University in Beirut. Another: an excursion into Mogadishu, Somalia, to see how an Islamic regime has begun to bring order to a nation torn by violence for a decade and a half. The point, if nothing else, is to bring in the voices of the generation they aim to resonate with, and to produce content “without a real formula” as to how to do it, said Ling.
The network, if anything, is set up not like a 24-hour television channel, but rather an all-news radio station. There is no daily or weekly schedule of shows. Each hour is instead broken down into 20 to 22 segments, with standard features at the top and bottom of the hour; and a mix of news, entertainment, opinions, and offbeat content in between.
“We felt there was a structure that does work on a major medium that does support what we set out to do,” said Neuman.
The producers also borrow from a new medium — the Internet — to add on-screen information. Its device: A green “progress bar” that shows the viewer how much time is left in a particular “pod.” That is its term for the video segments it shows, which typically last about three minutes.
In fact, editors at the “ingest” studio just across the street from Barry Bonds’ playhouse don’t try to project further out than two hours what will be thrown up for viewers to see. After all, some pods can come in as close as an hour before airing, noted chief technology officer Steven M. Blumenfeld.
But the format has its limits. Thompson likened it to vaudeville show, with a card act followed by a juggling act, with who knows what else to follow. Viewers have to watch whatever the producers choose to air, in whatever sequence they choose.
“The little green bar tells you, don’t worry if this doesn’t interest you,” said Thompson. “It’s going to change in a minute.”
“How real does it get?’’ asks Hyatt, who wants Current’s pods and flexible format to become a “proxy for a civil discussion” of public issues. A “current” example: Its solicitation of entries in a contest called “Seeds of Tolerance,’’ to address racism, sexism, homophobia and similar issues. Grand prize: $100,000.
He said he and Gore have no political agenda in directing the network; arguing only that the combination of the Internet and TV as media gives a chance to “reinvigorate” and re-engage Americans in political life.
“We didn’t ask if we were the right people to try it,” Hyatt said. “But we were willing to try it.”
To date, the network hasn’t ignited attention. Only about one in three TV households can even see the TV version of its programming. Its youthful target audience would have to shell out for digital cable in order to get it. Cable-system operators, Hyatt says, were dubious about having everyday Americans — young or otherwise — create content, on a long-term basis.
“They thought it was public access. They thought it was YouTube,” he said. “They thought we were absolutely nuts.”
It may well be that YouTube — a free source of videos available anytime from anywhere — is driving Current nuts. YouTube operates out of a bland set of offices with soiled carpet, on the second floor of a building that features a pizza joint next to a sushi restaurant. Current’s Los Angeles studio, by contrast, is a faithful replication of John Lautner’s Jetsons-like octagonal hillside home known as the Chemosphere.
A more practical contrast: Current’s online site, www.current.tv, has not made the Top 50 Internet sites, as rated by ComScore Media Metrix, in any of its 14 months in operation.
But YouTube has, moving in at No. 40, after launching in December 2005. With four months less under its belt, YouTube now has 16.1 million visitors a month — and more than 100 million playbacks of its video clips every day.
That could change, soon. On Wednesday (Sept. 20), Current is slated to announce a wholesale change in the way it presents video content to Web viewers. Hyatt promises a “very unique and compelling” approach that will make Current the “premiere video offering” on the Internet. One possibility: A series of broadband channels on cars, travel, sports, health and games with the content made by the people who watch it.
Gore and crew won’t be going it alone. Part of the overhaul will be a strategic alliance with a major Web partner, Hyatt said.
Google is a prime suspect, given its slow start in Web-video sharing in the past year — compared to YouTube — its grand ambitions, and the fact that the two companies already collaborate in a feature that appears twice an hour: Google Current, a short dissection of a term that is appearing at the top of Google’s search queries.
The usual suspects include companies that distribute videos in quantity from centralized data centers, such as Google, Yahoo, AOL or MSN. But Current could surprise the pay television business by using a “distributed” video service, like Orb Networks, that lets viewers pull content to their home computers then distribute it elsewhere, said Steven Vonder Haar, research director for Interactive Media Strategies in Arlington, Texas.
“This is like the early days of home-page publishing,” Vonder Haar said. “Everybody is developing their own mousetrap.”
Current is also distinct from YouTube or other out-of-nowhere video-sharing sites in that from the beginning, it has intended to be a business. It has studiously avoided sharing copyrighted content or putting people on air without their permission. Making money is an unabashed goal.
“YouTube is not a business. It’s a phenomenon,” Hyatt declared. “We set out to build a sustainable institution. We put the foundation in first.”
At the outset of this decade, Vonder Haar noted, a rash of sites such as GeoCities, Angelfire and Tripod that hosted text, audio and video content for Web users failed. Like YouTube, they didn’t edit what users put up. “Advertisers didn’t trust putting their messages on content they had no control over,” he said.
YouTube’s 60 employees are just starting to figure out how to bring in money for what they do. By contrast, Current’s 250 workers are getting paid from a business model that hews to the standard cable-television playbook: advertising revenue and per-subscriber license fees from cable and satellite operators.
DirecTV Inc., Comcast Corp. and Time Warner Cable all pay Current to distribute its programming to their 29.8 million subscribers. Current expects to announce its first deal with a pay television operator in Europe, sometime in the next month.
While Current LLC is privately held, Hyatt said the company is at least a year ahead of its financial projections. “Current is here to stay,’’ he says.
If so, why has Current lagged way behind YouTube, MySpace, and, dare one say, even MTV in generating buzz with youth?
YouTube has grabbed attention for putting up videos that themselves grab attention — like the copyright-protected “Lazy Sunday: Chronicles of Narnia” snippet from NBC’s Saturday Night Live. Or the Mentos breath mint-induced exploding soda bottles clip. Or Judson Laipply’s rapid-fire “Evolution of Dance.’’ But Current has not had any notable viral pods. And, said Hyatt, no marketing.
“That is essential,” said Shari Anne Brill, vice president of programming for ad agency Carat North America. “You have to let people know you’re there.”
Starting this week, that could change. Hyatt said Current plans its first serious marketing campaign aimed at consumers. He hopes to “explode the brand.”
Maybe he should ask Current’s viewers for help. One of their specialties: Creating commercials for products they like, such as a playful spot for the Sony HD Handycam where a beautiful woman turns out to “really” be a tubby man.
After all, if you can’t get buzz, some times you just have to manufacture it.
Take the campus of Syracuse University, which could be a hotbed of Current fans. It’s stocked with a lot of potential viewers between the ages of 18 and 24. It’s served by Time Warner Cable, which carries Current TV on channel 134 of its digital tier. And its student government even helped bring Gore to campus last week to speak at its Landmark Theatre about his movie, An Inconvenient Truth.
None of that has turned the dial, said Thompson, the Syracuse University professor. He makes a point of walking through public spaces, like around campus, where “TVs are present.’’
“I’ve seen CNN. I’ve seen Oprah. I’ve seen Comedy Central,” said Thompson. “I have never seen of those things set to Current TV.”