By now, many of us have had a chance to see the medium known as Current TV. And yes, it’s disappointing. What was once envisioned as a bottom-up alternative to the propaganda-rich conglomerate network news, has instead emerged as a kind of MTV-News, without the news.
Call it too 90’s, too hip, too marketed, or too stylish, but the real crime here is not what Current TV is or does, but rather the opportunity that was missed.
I was lucky enough to be among the many media/Internet thinkers invited to some of the first brainstorming sessions for the project. I got to meet Al Gore, and felt quite swept up in the possibilities for a new kind of participatory newsmedia. It was pretty shortly after the elections and 9/11, at what felt like the height of the FoxNews absurdity. And here was Al Gore, the guy who was supposed to be president, arguing that the best way to re-ignite democracy in America would be through media literacy. Gore said he thought that the Internet and DVmedia were finally at the speeds and prices that could enable some sort of participatory, streaming newsmedia project.
The philosophy seemed to go even deeper than that: If people, young people in particular, can experience news gathering and news storytelling as a participatory act, they would come to understand that interpreting the world around them was a collective proposition. Instead of simply absorbing the interpretations of others, they would come to recognize that they, too, were capable of having and sharing a perspective.
It wasn’t a cable channel we were talking about, but a movement. And those of us who were ready to lend a hand – everyone from Steven Johnson to Scott Heifferman – were imagining something more like Feed.com or meetup.com than MTV. In fact, the whole idea of putting the thing on television seemed rather superfluous. Why not let this thing evolve more naturally online, where people can post text, photos, or video, and where collaborative filtering could be used to select front-page pieces?
We brainstormed on different kinds of forums, even the creation of media cafes in different American cities where people could come and learn how to write or produce essays and segments, ways for reporters to move up the ranks and become editors and trainers of others. Online training tools for self-teaching, or for meeting up with and organizing with others in any community.
Then, from what I can tell, the opportunity arose to buy a cable TV channel. And then focus shifted a bit towards raising the money, making the deal, and becoming a real cable channel. And I’m sure there are realities to all this that are far beyond what I can imagine. I’ve never raised money, never done a multi-million-dollar project, never had to deal with investors. But television is a powerful force – a powerful medium. A very strong flavor to bring into the recipe.
But it’s also *last* century’s big medium. It’s not the best platform for a participatory media movement. And so the priorities of the project, understandably, shifted to the priorities of TV: looking cool, creating an aspirational culture, and so on.
On the first broadcast day, one of the hosts said it all: “send us your tapes, and if we think it’s cool and relevant, we’ll put it on the air.” If *they* think so. Because they’re the arbiters of cool and relevant. And who are “they”? Former programming executives from other TV stations.
I like Al Gore, and I like most of the people I know who are over at Current. They are well-meaning, and they are not dumb. But cable television is not the place to launch the great interactive media experiment for the 21st Century. The great cable TV revolution already happened with CNN and MTV. Those were the watershed cable innovations, along with payTV channels like HBO. It already happened.
The “next big thing” in media will not happen on TV – or at least not primarily on TV. It will happen on or through the Internet. The great possibility here was that Al Gore’s vision and the goodwill his presence generated could have been enough to surmount the challenges of making a new kind of media. He had my vote, as well as my promise of support. Yes, there were a great many of us who were willing to work for free to help create a participatory mediaspace. That’s how the Internet culture of which we’re all a part really developed in the first place.
I’m an optimist. It’s not too late for Current to learn from its mistakes, realize there really *is* a hunger for something different, and then go about providing its constituency with the tools and platform to make it themselves.
If, instead, Current has irrevocably committed itself to providing today’s young viewers with more TV, it will be left to someone or someones else to do the thing Al Gore was talking about back in 2001.