On Sept. 20, Al Gore’s Current TV network plans to announce a partnership with Yahoo!, according to two sources familiar with the deal.
That coupling will mean a higher profile for the tiny, quirky 24-hour network—channel 103 on the Time Warner dial. Current debuted a year ago to raised eyebrows and predictions of imminent demise.
The Yahoo! partnership should drive traffic to Current’s already bustling Web site, where independent video producers post finished programs, called pods, for review and critique. The site functions like a television version of Digg.com: Members of the Current TV community view and vote on their favorite pods, which climb up and down a leader board according to a complicated algorithm that no one involved seems to understand. The network buys the top vote-getters for $500 to $1,000 apiece, works with the producer to polish the pods, and eventually shows them on TV.
The cable network itself airs a rotating slate of three- to seven-minute pods on subjects as varied as anorexia, global warming, the MisShapes, stay-at-home dads in Park Slope, growing anti-American sentiment in Egypt, Hurricane Katrina relief efforts and a 21-year-old’s cross-country road trip with his girlfriend. Shuffled in between is the occasional vintage documentary, commercial spot or Google top-five search list. In-house, they refer to ads as ICBM’s: isolated creative brand messages. Viewer-created content they call “vc-squared.” The network has no published schedule. Instead, it feels as if it were programmed by a 25-year-old graduate student with eclectic tastes and a Ritalin prescription. All this is its appeal.
In its first year of existence, the network has doubled its reach—to 30 million homes, from 17 million—and earned a tidy $3 million profit from advertising revenue and carriage agreements. It has expanded from its original San Francisco headquarters to a second office in Los Angeles. It has built a large interactive online community with the idea of fostering what Mr. Gore calls a “conversation of democracy.” And now, Yahoo!
On Aug. 1, 2006, a year to the day after the network’s launch, Mr. Gore and his wife, Tipper, joined the entire Current TV staff to celebrate these accomplishments on a cruise around San Francisco Bay.
When the 45th Vice President arrived at the dock that night, moments before the boat set sail, he was greeted as he so often is nowadays: by a reverential swarm of attractive, thoughtful, mostly liberal young people. Many of Current TV’s young employees cast their first vote in a Presidential election for Mr. Gore, their adoring chairman.
“He’s one of the biggest and coolest figures out there,” said Adam Yamaguchi, a foreign correspondent, part of Current TV’s enterprising vanguard journalism department, and one of the crowd in attendance that night. “We wish we had more of him.”
Mr. Yamaguchi, 27, is a prototypical Current employee: rugged, ruffled, studiously alternative and about one degree more built than an Abercrombie physique. (“We joke that the staff looks like one big advertisement for United Colors of Benetton,” he said.) He travels the world for the network, reporting on “the changing role of the United States in world affairs against the backdrop of the emergence of India and China, and our declining popularity post-Iraq.” He also reports on global warming, and Mr. Gore, who has no explicit editorial control over the network, has called him once or twice for a meeting.
“He suggested I go to the Himalayan range, to Tibet and Nepal, to do a story there,” Mr. Yamaguchi said. Those areas rely on fresh water from ice reservoirs that are being wiped out by global warming. “And once the reservoir disappears, these countries are fucked.
“The first time I met him,” Mr. Yamaguchi said of Mr. Gore, “was five days after our launch at a big party at [Current C.E.O.] Joel Hyatt’s house. He spotted me from a distance and called out my name. I went over to talk to him, and he had the nicest things to say.”
Mr. Gore keeps an office at the network’s futuristic-looking San Francisco headquarters—a modest nook with desk, couch, table and assorted earthy paraphernalia—and visits it regularly. He insists all of his employees call him “Al,” and when he comes by, Mr. Yamaguchi said, “most of the people on staff get kind of nervous around him. In many ways they treat him like the rock star he’s become in the last year.” Mr. Gore has done his Inconvenient Truth PowerPoint presentation for the San Francisco and Los Angeles staffs. Every time he earns a round of laudatory headlines, someone sends out an all-staff e-mail. “You know: ‘Way to go boss!’”
What’s more, “he’s really great at e-mail,” Mr. Yamaguchi said. “I once wrote to him about a story I was working on and assumed I wouldn’t hear back for awhile, if ever. I mean, he’s Al Gore. But I got a response back, like, within minutes.”
Mr. Yamaguchi was born and raised in Los Angeles, attended UCLA, and took a job out of college as a production assistant for CNN. Following in the footsteps of many young, enthusiastic TV-news employees, he stayed a short time, grew tired of the drudgery, and resolved to go into management consulting. Before he could make the switch, the largest Japanese television news outlet offered him a job producing foreign news. He once spent three weeks covering a whale hunt in Alaska, for TV-Asahi. He spent four years traveling the world.
In 2005, the near-miss Presidential candidate and his partner, Mr. Hyatt, who is also a Democratic fund-raiser, were acquiring distribution rights for what they were then calling INDTV. Mr. Yamaguchi met David Neuman, a former producer for Channel One and one of the creators of the Current TV pod format, and began freelancing for the still-unlaunched network in April. He became a full-time employee five months later.
“It was trial under fire,” Mr. Yamaguchi said. “They gave me a bunch of tapes from Channel One and said, ‘Here, look at these!’”
Current TV has, in fact, much to do with Channel One, where once upon a time the young reporters Anderson Cooper and Lisa Ling, at the urging of their producers, experimented with a new style of journalistic storytelling that dispenses with some of the more irksome conventions of TV news. Two Channel One producers—Mr. Neuman, the president of programming, and Mitchell Koss, a producer—brought the style over to Current.
Laura Ling, Lisa’s sister, is the director of Current’s journalism department.
“Lisa Ling and Anderson Cooper are the gods and goddesses of our company,” said Mr. Yamaguchi. He has the added physical virtue of strongly resembling Mr. Cooper. (“I do?” he asked, furrowing his brow in the trademark Cooper style. “I guess I’m channeling him inadvertently.”)
“We’re trying to bring the world to young people in a way that isn’t patronizing,” said Mr. Yamaguchi, whose reports stand out for their clarity and lack of pretension. In one pod, he walks around Egypt asking people what they think of Americans. In another, he travels to a remote village in northwestern Alaska to study the effects of global warming. His style is casual. If he does a perfect stand-up, where he doesn’t flub a line or react in a way that seems natural and unpolished, he throws it out.
“After nine years in mainstream national TV news and docs, followed by 14 in the alternative side of it, it’s hard to overstate how fortunate I feel that Current exists,” Mr. Koss wrote in an e-mail.
“It’s real stories,” said Allison Melody Biggar, a 25-year-old documentary filmmaker who lives in Los Angeles and produces pods on a freelance basis for Current TV. “It’s not sponsored by any particular advertising, and the people out there making these pods really care about what they’re doing. They see an injustice and they want to document it. They think something’s really interesting, and they want people to know about it.”
Mr. Gore’s involvement was a big part of the appeal, she said. “I voted for him. I think he has good intentions. He’s a good person.” She just saw An Inconvenient Truth. She frequently visits the Current TV Web site. She works on Current TV pods and e-mails with Current TV fans.
The only thing Ms. Biggar doesn’t do is watch Current TV on TV.
“In my new house, I don’t get it,” she said. Neither does Adam Barton, a 24-year-old Current TV contributor and freelance film editor who lives, as many of the network’s fans do, in Brooklyn. He’s the producer behind the road-trip pod—actually, the five road-trip pods, since the network bought his idea and helped him turn it into a series. He likes the network; he just doesn’t pay to subscribe to it.
Mr. Barton is part of a generation that many mainstream news outlets assume is disinterested or, at least, unreachable. He watches broadcast network newscasts, he said, especially 60 Minutes. He also likes PBS. He first heard about Current TV five months ago, when he saw An Inconvenient Truth. Mr. Gore’s relationship to the network intrigued him.
“I think it was a little bit of an appeal,” he said. “When I turned 18, the first person in my whole life I voted for was Al Gore. There’s something to be said for that. I was really inspired by An Inconvenient Truth. I thought it was a great way for someone in his position to use the power and notoriety he had for a cause, and then to do it in the format of a documentary film. I thought it was great. I would say I was inspired by him to make media that would be impactful—ultimately, hopefully, to have a positive impact on social issues and environmental issues. So yeah, his involvement was an appeal.”
Steve Loff is part of a threesome that makes Current TV pods with their production company, Go Pictures. Mr. Loff is 32 and also lives in Brooklyn.
“I watch some CNN. I watch some Fox. I don’t sit down and watch the 11 o’clock news every day because it depresses me,” he said. “There are actually good stories when you watch Current. Watching it won’t completely depress and demoralize you. That’s why I like it. The world isn’t coming to an end on Current TV.”
Mr. Loff was planning to attend a Current TV dinner party on Sept. 20, the day of the Yahoo! announcement. The network periodically throws parties in New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles for its contributors. Wednesday night’s is at the Dragonfly in Soho. Earlier that afternoon, the network is hosting a screening of 10 viewer-created videos in a pod-festival at the Angelika.
One independent producer selected to be in the festival is Sandi Bachom, whose film is called Telling Jokes in Auschwitz. Ms. Bachom, who lives in Gramercy and used to make television commercials for a living, said she basically works for the network all the time.
“It really does color the way I look at walking around New York,” she said. “I’m always thinking, ‘Oh, that would be a great pod.’”