Cable Channel Looks to 'Democratize' TV
RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.
On Monday a new television network aimed at 18- to 34-year-olds will premiere on cable TV in some 20 million households. Among its founders is former Vice President Al Gore. He's boasted that the network will democratize television by giving viewers a chance to produce programming. Ah, but as NPR's Laura Sydell reports, democracy can be a messy business.
LAURA SYDELL reporting:
In the months leading up to the premiere of his new network, Al Gore evangelized to large audiences of young people, as recounted in this promotional video for Current TV.
(Soundbite of video)
Former Vice President AL GORE: How many of you would like to see an opportunity to talk about what's going on in our world that you can participate in with television?
SYDELL: Viewer participation has been the siren call of Gore's newly minted network. In recent months, Current TV has been asking young people to share their ideas and their videos. David Neuman is the network's president of programming
Mr. DAVID NEUMAN (President of Programming, Current TV): On our Web site will be an extraordinary amount of information and training and guidance that will help the audience actually make pieces of television for our network.
SYDELL: Neuman and other Current TV staff were unable to speak with us in person because they're immersed in preparing for the network's premiere. But they've been running their Web site for months, featuring some of the best videos they've received, such as this one by Yasmin Vossoughian, an Iranian American who went to Iran and spoke with young adults there about sexual attitudes. Her visit includes footage from underground parties.
(Soundbite of video)
Ms. YASMIN VOSSOUGHIAN (Videographer): The biggest surprises at the parties were definitely the ecstasy, the grain alcohol and the scantily clad women. I could have been at a party in Brooklyn.
SYDELL: Vossoughian's five-minute video will be shown on Current TV. For a 26-year-old who's worked in low-level production positions since college, this is an opportunity she would never get from traditional networks.
Ms. VOSSOUGHIAN: It's not like I was the executive producer of a CNN Headline News, which is usually the sort of experience you'd need in order to have your stuff be seen on television.
SYDELL: Current TV is soliciting non-fiction videos that run anywhere from 15 seconds to 15 minutes. Once a video is uploaded over the Internet, if approved by staff, it goes online, where visitors can vote on which should air on the network. About 25 percent of the network's content will be viewer submissions.
(Soundbite of video)
Unidentified Woman #1: I am the deejay, designer, photographer, producer, podcaster, director, videographer...
SYDELL: What makes this experiment in democratic television possible is both the Internet and the availability of relatively cheap video cameras. But on the way to the revolution, some of the foot soldiers got disenchanted. Current TV initially announced it would hire 50 digital correspondents. About 2,000 applied, including 33-year-old Chuck Olsen.
Mr. CHUCK OLSEN (Applicant): We were going to join the team and help them figure out what this was going to be. And then they brought in a lot of old media people, and suddenly the openness closed, and we were left out of the process.
SYDELL: The network decided not to hire staff correspondents but instead to ask for submissions and pay freelance rates. And Olsen says it closed down its block where viewers were openly commenting. Current TV also got rid of former programming president Michael Rosenblum, a longtime advocate for viewer participation. Rosenblum thinks the more closed approach may lose them fans.
Mr. MICHAEL ROSENBLUM (Former Programming President, Current TV): If Current TV doesn't resonate with the creators of the content, they'll just stop contributing. And that will indicate that they have alienated one group in pursuit of trying to organize on the other side.
SYDELL: That is, trying to keep control of content, like a traditional TV network. Would-be contributor 23-year-old Josh Wolfe(ph) has a wait-and-see attitude about what was formerly called INdTV.
Mr. JOSH WOLFE (Videographer): The original INdTV Web site was filled with, like: There's a revolution, be a part of it. And now it's, like: There's TV, watch more of it.
SYDELL: Wolfe believes that the need to sell commercials will prevent anything too edgy from getting on the network. Like a growing number of young people, he plans to continue making videos and posting them on his own video blog. And that may pose a challenge for Current TV. As young people fill the Internet with personal content, they may find network TV altogether less appealing. Laura Sydell, NPR News, San Francisco.