Media: All about ... Current TV

Al Gore has brought viewer-created content to TV, Alasdair Reid writes.

US vice-presidents either become president when their turn comes or they disappear without trace. Do you know, for instance, what Dan Quayle is up to these days? Exactly.

But Albert Arnold Gore, Jr, formerly the 45th vice-president and bag-carrier-in-chief to President Clinton, has rather broken the mould. He lost the 2000 presidential election to George W Bush - but if the zeitgeist is a wave and that wave has a leading edge, there's no-one more prominently up there surfing it these days.

Gore is a director of Apple Inc, an advisor to the board of Google and was also heavily involved in An Inconvenient Truth, the award-winning feature film documentary on climate change released last year.

He is also, perhaps most importantly, the co-founder and president of Current TV, the most zeitgeisty television channel on the planet. And we're going to be hearing rather a lot about Current TV as it happens, because it has just launched in the UK on the Sky and Virgin Media platforms.

1Gore and his business partner Joel Hyatt bought the US cable news channel Newsworld International in 2004 and began a radical reinvention process. Gore's treatment at the hands of conventional news media during the 2000 election campaign convinced him there was a need for an independent factual programming platform for open-minded people between the ages of 18 and 34. NWI was relaunched as Current TV in August 2005, and is now available in 39 million homes, on a subscription basis.

2Seventy per cent of Current TV's schedule is commissioned and produced in the time-honoured fashion - though it aims to be quirky in format and left-field in its viewpoints. In the remaining 30 per cent of its output, Current is essentially television's foremost exponent of the viewer-created content phenomenon that, in its internet manifestation, is one of the principal drivers of Web 2.0. But it has an online aspect, too.

The site invites viewers to submit short-form non-fiction video films. These are then showcased online, and visitors to the site can vote for the films they want to see on air. Current TV editors can then cherry-pick the best material. A training programme is also offered in an effort to raise amateur production standards.

3There are normal spot advertising and sponsorship opportunities on Current, but it also offers innovative ways for advertisers to become involved where the broadcast channel is concerned. Advertisers and agencies can use the website to issue "briefs" for viewer-created ads - and once submitted, a viewer-created spot, if it meets the brief, will be voted on using the same mechanism used to judge editorial submissions. Or advertisers can offer to help develop individual submissions.

Furthermore, advertisers are free to submit advertiser-funded programming executions for consideration in editorial slots. These can run if they meet the regulatory conditions, are in keeping with the do-it-yourself style of much of the rest of the channel's content and pass quality control votes. On top of all of this, Current occasionally will give over a six-minute slot in which advertisers can run experimental formats - usually quirky long-form or rough-cut commercials.

4In the US, the channel's audience has been too low to trouble the Nielsen audience measurement system, so it is zero-rated. It essentially trades on a metric "factored up" from traffic figures on the website plus "anecdotal evidence" that content is making an impact on its target audience.

But Current is basically asking advertisers to take a punt when they buy into the channel - and its rates continue to reflect that. Rivals are not slow to exploit the fact that it offers no hard and fast trading currency. And it remains on shaky ground when it evokes anecdotal evidence. As one US media analyst, John Higgins, put it last year: "Do you ever hear people say: 'Did you see that video on Current?' No. They say: 'Did you see that video on YouTube?'"

5But advertisers are undaunted in the US - and many use Current to experiment with new ideas, put out feelers and stimulate feedback. It is thought that Current made a profit of $3 million on revenues of $47 million in 2006, with advertising contributing $10 million. Its ad revenue forecast for 2007 is $19 million. Advertisers who've used Current to develop ideas include Converse, Sony Electronics, MasterCard, Toyota and L'Oreal.



- One thing is sure: if Current wants to be a long-term success, it will have to generate enough of an audience to appear on the Barb figures. And it would be advised to commission its own proprietary research, too.

- But this is going to prove an intriguing option for advertisers in the UK. It is essentially a hybrid - taking the formats and do-it-yourself attitudes of the YouTube generation, yet applying some of the editorial quality control virtues and production standards more commonly found in mainstream television.

- As Jean-Paul Edwards, the head of OMD Media Futures, puts it: "Current won't attract a huge audience overnight, but it will draw a well-targeted, opinion-forming demographic. That will be attractive for some brands pushing the corporate responsibility angle. And the many ways in which you can get involved on the advertising side will be interesting, too. It adds a whole new dimension."

- Damien Blackden, the director of strategic marketing technologies at Universal McCann, agrees: "The thing about YouTube is there's just so much rubbish on there. Current's short-form content is good. It's the best sort of snack media. There's a realisation now that we need filters of some sort - so Current represents the democratisation of media without giving in to anarchy."


- The smarter players are going to take more than a passing interest in this new kid in the playground, and the odds are we'll see a bit of me-too activity kicking in. Expect a rash of viewer-generated content slots in post peak.