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TV For You and Me

TV For You and Me


Current TV has democratized the small screen with user-generated programming. So what's in it for us? Turns out, whatever we make of it.

Producer-director Dave O'Brien has already gone through the development wringer with the Here cable network and MTV's Logo channel. The gay 30-year-old's indie documentary Hip Hop Homos and short film Straight Boys aired on Logo, as have his music videos for artists such as lesbian hip-hop duo God-Des and She. But it's the Al Gore-backed Current TV that O'Brien says has taken the most interest in his LGBT-themed work. While Logo and Here program their fair share of coming-out profiles and documentary features within the mix of reality shows and serials, it's Current that's procuring stories from the LGBT population -- in other words, people like you. In fact, the Current is more akin to a local film festival than a TV network in its pursuit of the unique, less heard, and often underfunded narratives, and it has opened up a blank canvas for gay people to represent themselves if they simply pick up a camera and get to work.

The channel aired Fight for Marriage, O'Brien's report on last year's referendum on an amendment to ban civil unions and same-sex marriage in Wisconsin, which chronicled the weeks leading up to the November vote. Current also bought from O'Brien a segment about young people, both straight and gay, who are battling sexual addictions; another about the controversy at the University of Southern California's campus newspaper, which had published antigay letters to the editor; and another about a group of die-hard "Rentheads" who give early reviews of Rent.

"These are the kind of authentic LGBT stories that "you wouldn't see anywhere else, not even on Logo or Here," O'Brien says. "On Current the ideas are coming from the viewers and are being told in their voices."

The network, launched in 2005 with the aim of giving the 18- to 34-year-old set a hand in generating their own news, is a collection of short-form programs called "pods," many under five minutes long. These pods run on a shuffle, like your iPod, in a loop that cycles every couple of hours. Topics for these programs fall under the purposely broad category of anything that interests young people: careers, relationships, fashion, sex, pop culture, and yes, even current events. And the shuffle means that programming isn't organized by topic. One minute you could be watching something about Britney Spears; the next, the war in Uganda. Think of it as a think tank for the MySpace generation that makes news palatable for an audience that shuns news and politics on the air and often in print. According to "Teens Tune In to News on the Internet," a Knight Foundation study published in 2006, 66% of U.S. high school students get news from Google and Yahoo! while just 34% get it from local TV or newspaper sites. What's more, adults younger than 30 say they spend more than half of their Internet time with user-generated content, according to the 2007 "State of the Media Democracy" study conducted by Harrison Group for Deloitte. Has Current TV seen the future of television?

In two years Current has reached distribution in 41 million households in the United States (52 million worldwide), which makes it one of the fasting-growing networks today. And Current is the youngest network to be nominated for and win an Emmy -- a 2007 award for outstanding achievement in interactive television. At the network's Web site,, viewers can upload news pods, video blogs, comments, and links to stories, making Current a real-time source of news gathering and sharing.

But YouTube it's not. Viewers create an average of 30% of the broadcast content, a percentage that programming president David Neuman expects to rise to 50% over the next year. They won't, however, green-light just anything for television. "We're picky. We want to put on things that are compelling," Neuman says. For now, in-house producers are taking their cues from the material that is being submitted by viewers as well as their own journalistic instincts. "My role is sort of like a therapist or a facilitator," Neuman says. "I'm not programming the network so much as asking 'Can you elaborate or add some perspective to that?' "

Though the network has consistently been critiqued in the media for its spastic -- executives prefer the term "dynamic" -- playlist of programs rotating throughout the day on shuffle mode, Current executives say that viewers spend an average 7.5 hours watching the channel per week. That's a significant chunk of the average 10.6 hours college students spent watching TV per week this past spring, according to New Jersey-based research company Youth Trends.

Analysts and media buyers, meanwhile, are paying close attention to what Current is doing in an age when the youth market has made hits out of faux-news shows like The Daily Show With Jon Stewart. Brad Adgate, senior vice president of research at Horizon Media, says that the channel is alone in its TV aim. "I don't know if it's a must-buy for advertisers yet, but it could just be ahead of its time," he says. "What they're doing is unproven ground."

Fortunately, for us, that unproven ground leaves a lot of room at the table for LGBT voices. Once such example is the story of Adriana, born "Andre," a transgender woman in her early 20s who's been living on the streets of Hollywood ever since her stepdad kicked her out when she was 13. Producer Derrick Shore met her as she was lunching on Cup O' Noodles near the corner of Highland Avenue and Santa Monica Boulevard and produced a portrait of Adriana titled Trans in Hollywood, and in a few days it made its way into Current's program shuffle. This is one reason why Shore, a former anchor for national high school newscast Channel One, says that for all the progress made for coverage of LGBT issues in the mainstream media, Current still stands alone in having a transparent approach.

"People should have a place to debate these issues, where the network isn't afraid to talk about it," he continues, "especially sexuality, which is so pertinent to young people." Shore says after Trans in Hollywood aired, one viewer was so moved by Adriana's story that he wrote to Derrick offering her a place to live.

"That's the great thing about Current," adds O'Brian. " I feel like I actually have an impact on whatever topic I'm producing."

And just as the Web is worldwide, so are the stories that flow to Current, such as segments about the growing the gay scene in Shanghai or gay rights rallies in Jerusalem. "If it's well-articulated and an authentic expression of a particular side of an issue, we want to air it--along with opposing points of view," explain Current's chief executive officer, Joel Hyatt.

Current's audience is marked by optimism, says Neuman, who spent several years running CNN's news-gathering operation. "The message our audience is sending is that you can be who you want to be, which is such a big issue for the LGBT community. They're marked by their compassion and in many ways their lack of cynicism."

Before the network got off the ground, most media mavens expected an Al Gore network to be progressive and at the very least left-leaning. It's not overtly either, but executives at Current admit their biggest ongoing challenge is to diversify the lineup.

Saskia Wilson-Brown, director of outreach for the channel, is hard at work traveling to film festivals, conventions, and colleges to solicit new voices for the channel. She says Current has had no trouble pulling creative talent from the LGBT populace. "But we're also trying to get the broadest spectrum possible," she says. "People on the right wouldn't think this is a place to get to get involved, but that couldn't be farther from the truth. We're all about opening a dialogue here."

"We had one pod about gay marriage that featured the opposing viewpoints from a Christian," Wilson-Brown adds. "He had thought-through arguments and strongly held beliefs. It can be hard to hear, but it had integrity and we aired it."

O'Brien also is doing outreach for Current on a college tour, speaking to students about how to participate in the channel. "This is not a traditional TV network," he says. "The creative team will watch every single pod that gets uploaded, and they'll give feedback, good and bad. I look at Current as more of a communication tool than a singular TV network."

If Gore hasn't already brought the channel plenty of attention via his recent accolades, a media avalanche may still be on the way. In October, Current spent its first marketing dollars to launch a nationwide campaign to further promote awareness of the channel, complete with advertising on other channels as well as in print and at events. In addition, Hyatt assures us that the channel will soon be rated by Nielsen; that would definitely make public the network's actual viewership levels.

Whatever those initial numbers turn out to be, Reichen Lehmkuhl says the network has already proved it has legs. Current recruited the gay rights activist and Amazing Race winner to talk about his experience coming out while in the Air Force. Between online and on-air content, Current covers "a lot of issues that people in the LGBT community care about, maybe more than in other communities," he says. "Maybe the format is still too different and new, but I think they're going to be around for the long haul."

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Denise Martin