What can we learn from the brief wondrous life of Current TV?
Today, the Qatar-backed international news network Al Jazeera agreed to buy Al Gore's progressive cable channel Current TV for around $500 million according to the New York Times, citing sources close to the deal. That's a lot of cash for a network few people watch, but it's not the programming Al Jazeera wants, it's the potential to reach 40 million cable-watching US couch potatoes. According to reports, Al Jazeera plans to transition Current TV into a network called "Al Jazeera America." And while it's impossible to know exactly what this channel will look like, it's unlikely that Al Jazeera will try to repeat the programming mistakes of the Current TV crew, particularly when cable insiders are saying things like, "No one wanted to carry Current TV and they want to carry an Al Jazeera channel even less."
So in other words, Current TV is dead. But how did a former Vice President's attempts to reinvent television news go so awry, particularly when so many of its experiments were ahead of its time? By looking back on the life of Current, we find that while they had great ideas, they often used the wrong platforms, partners, or personnel to execute them.
August 1, 2005:
Current TV launches as the brainchild of former Vice President Al Gore and American businessman Joel Hyatt. The target audience was 18-34 year-olds "who want to learn about the world in a voice they recognize and a view they recognize as their own." Current TV's biggest early innovation was its reliance on user-generated content at a time when YouTube was still only a few months old. Its segments were also much shorter than most television shows, lasting around 5 or 10 minutes in most cases. This too predated the short blasts of content we've come to expect on the Web today.
Here's one early example of Current's "VC2" series or "Viewer-Created Content":
September 20, 2006:
"We expect this will be the premier video online experience." That's what Al Gore told the Associated Press about the partnership Current TV launched with Yahoo! in September 2006. One of their offerings, the web-based "Yahoo! Current Buzz" was even produced by Daily Show co-creator Madeleine Smithberg. At the time, TechCrunch's Nik Cubrilovic wrote, "Some of the content is actually pretty good, much better than what you would find on YouTube."
And yet only a few months after it began, the "premier video online experience" came to a close with neither party clearly explaining why the partnership ended. Yahoo said, "As we approach the end of the initial ramp-up period built into the partnership with Current TV, both parties have determined that our respective goals and objectives were diverging and mutually decided to pursue other opportunities independently." Current TV agreed with the statement and had nothing else to add at the time.
The Yahoo! Current Network is no longer live, but here's a segment from one of the partnership's first videos, documenting a day in the life of U2's guitarist The Edge:
Also in 2006:
In Sarah Lacy's book, "Once You're Lucky, Twice You're Good," Digg co-founder Kevin Rose recounts how Al Gore made an offer to buy Digg “at least in the range of $100 million.” Digg of course would go on to lose much of its stature, and it eventually sold for an estimated $500,000. But like a number of Gore's moves with Current, he sensed the value of something (in this case social link-sharing) before many others did.
September 16, 2007:
Despite low ratings, Current TV was never a stranger to awards and prestige. In 2007, it was awarded the Emmy for Best Interactive Television Network. The award was presented by Masi Oka, of the short-lived television series "Heroes," and MySpace founder Tom Anderson, in a pop culture moment that feels hopelessly antiquated even just five years later.
September 15, 2008:
Long before Twitter partnered with big news/media organizations, it partnered with Current TV to include Tweets in the network's coverage of the presidential debates. Not only was it an early example of a television network integrating social media content into its content, it was also one of the earliest signs that Twitter was taking itself seriously as a media company.
November 12, 2009:
By this point, Current had become pioneers in not one but three emergent media trends: the use of user-generated content, web video, and social media. Yet the network was still plagued by low ratings. So in November 2009, it laid off 25% of its staff and underwent a major shift in the direction of its programming. At the time Variety wrote, "Current said it will now move money into creating departments focused on program development, licensing and acquisitions, talent management, research, marketing, affiliate relations and advertising sales. In other words, start operating like a more traditional network."
Current also shifted its focus to 30 minute programs as opposed to the quick 5-10 minute pieces it made its name on. So as the rest of the media world finally started to get wise to the techniques pioneered by Current, Current was moving in the opposite direction.
In defense of Current, despite the excitement surrounding its bold innovations, the network's best-executed work was its more traditional, documentary-style pieces, like the Peabody Award-winning "Oxycontin Express"
June 20, 2011:
Current brings on MSNBC's popular yet volatile host Keith Olbermann, only to fire him less than a year later. Meanwhile, MSNBC's ratings continue to grow, making it harder and harder for Current to rebrand itself as the definitive left-leaning cable news network.
Which brings us to today's news. Looking back on Current TV's seven-year existence, the network was right about user-generated content, but as observers like Reuters' Andrew Wallenstein have said it chose the wrong platform; YouTube proved, user-generated content is most effective on the Web, not on television. Next, Current started to do interesting work in web video, but perhaps chose the wrong platform; we don't know exactly why the Yahoo! deal fell apart, but Yahoo!'s record with smaller companies like Flickr is less than stellar. And by the time the network took advantage of Gore's political identity by operating as a traditional cable news network driven by strong liberal personalities, MSNBC had already beat them to the punch.
Wallenstein perhaps put it best in a 2010 article: "In retrospect, what's distinctive about Current's troubles was that Gore's vision had so much potential. It's uncanny how close he was to capitalizing on several key trends that transformed the media world, only to watch others do so."