Current TV and the Audience as Auteur

Justin Juul August 29, 2006

“I’m Dead Broke,” “I Have Embarrassing Parents,” “I’ve Got Baby Mama Drama”: If you recognize any of these titles from MTV’s hit show “True Life,” you are probably between the ages of 18 and 34. You have warm fuzzy memories of the day Jessica from English class ran out the door in tears and painted “We all love/miss you Kurt” on the lockers. You remember the East Coast/West Coast rap feud and witnessed the first episode of “The Real World.” And by now, you may be over the network that raised you. Know that Al Gore has you in the crosshairs.

Gore’s fledgling San Francisco-based cable and satellite TV channel, Current TV, is creating cutting-edge content democratically, with a third of the channel’s programming schedule created by viewers and, according to producers, that share is growing. Termed VC2 (viewer-created content) the 3-7 minute “pods” focus on cultural and political issues ranging from the plastic surgery epidemic in Brazil, to American rappers in Iraq, to starving street performers in New York City. Current TV’s viewer base hits the streets daily to document life in all its infinite manifestations.

The past two or three years have seen a phenomenal rise in consumer-created news and entertainment. From MySpace to YouTube to Google Video, viewers are getting more say in what they do and don’t see. What distinguishes Current TV from other destinations, according to Anastasia Goodstein, Online Director at Current, is its combination of television and Internet — the offering of the best of both worlds.

The way it works is that viewer/contributors make short movies and upload them to to be viewed by the Current TV community. Every time a member watches one of the short-form videos, or “pods” as they’ve been termed, he or she is given the option to “green light” it for a chance to be shown on television. When a video gets enough green lights, producers send it into rotation alongside viewer-created commercials, other “pods,” and more traditionally produced shows. The next step in reality television, Current TV is like an everlasting season of “Who Wants to Marry a Millionaire” where you, your friends, and everyone you know, has an even shot at hearing wedding chimes and basking in the limelight.

Current has a formalized filtering process and even a mission statement. It strives to be politically conscious and to cater specifically to the 18-34-year-old demographic. It calls itself a “YouTube for thinking people.” The television/internet format allows producers to match “viewer-created content” with professionally produced high-end shows that aren’t available on the site, a hybrid of television and Internet, because, as Goodstein says, market research shows that “18-34 year olds consume information through the Internet and television almost simultaneously,” and they are the user base that defines what is current.

In an attempt to fully integrate the eclectic voice of this target market, Current TV, in partnership with The Third Millennium Foundation, is soliciting filmmakers for its “Seeds of Tolerance” contest. The rules are simple and fairly loose: each applicant is to submit a 3-15 minute video that focuses on unlearning intolerance or understanding diversity. Stories related to racism, sexism, homophobia, class, disability, age, or religion are all perfect themes, but producers are adamant that applicants should feel free to focus on whatever “tolerance” means to them personally. Each contestant must also include a 250-word companion essay that outlines how the story might inspire, or has inspired, positive change.

Some noteworthy submissions from the last month or so include “River,” the story of a young transsexual from North Carolina who allows a camera to follow him as he plans his escape from the intolerant south to the open arms of a “fabulously queer, lit-up New York City.” Then there is “The Rick Harrington Story,” about a 23-year old man who sings in a punk band, races motorcycles, and has had HIV since he was born. Other celebrated submissions include journalist Daniel Lurie’s coverage of the genocide in Sudan, a piece on missionaries in China, and a story about the life of the first African American to have served as a Fortune 500 company executive.

The contest is an expression of Current TV’s commitment to changing the face of news. “Our goal,” says Goodstein “is to increase access to the television medium and to pioneer our own version of broadcast journalism that appeals to a younger audience that is turned off by traditional television news.” In keeping with their dedication to achieving this goal, Current has selected a panel of celebrity judges whose work reflects a passion for influencing positive social change and tolerance in the 18-34 year old community. Edward Norton, Margaret Cho, and Melissa Etheridge are among the more recognizable names. The grand prize is $100,000 and rotation on television. There are also runner-up prizes of $10,000 and rotation.

The contest is a good indicator of what Current TV has planned for the future. In only its second year the network has established alliances with Sony, L’Oreal, and Toyota and there are plans for future partnerships. “Current TV is now carried by Comcast to 30 million homes in the US and is making plans to spread worldwide.” Goodstein says. Also, other networks, such as CNN and CW are now copying the “VC2” format.

Knowing your audience is a media cliché, trusting your audience may turn out to be revolutionary.

Justin Juul is an intern with and a student at UC Santa Cruz.