One of my favorite innovators, Current TV, has been nominated for their first Emmy Award.
This is no small accomplishment. Current, the cable network started jointly by Al Gore and Joel Hyatt, is barely two years old, and had a challenging gestation and birth. (You can read more about the growth of Current in my recent feature story here.) But it came into being with the lofty goal of revolutionizing the way television was programmed — something that broke open the black box of television and let viewers have a direct say in what went on the air. “It had to be transformational and democratic,” Gore told me.
Signs of success are all around them — profitability in record time, gushing advertisers, growing viewership — but an Emmy nod has got to feel pretty good. I’m madly checking Emmy history now, but I believe it may be the youngest cable network to garner any sort of nomination. The buzz on the street is that they’re a good bet to win – and rumor has it that the former Veep will be cutting short his vacation to be in the audience when the winner is announced on September 16th. The category is for Outstanding Creative Achievement in Interactive Television, and will be held during the 2007 Primetime Emmy® Awards.
Current TV is a fascinating story on many levels, not the least of which was the struggle to figure out what Current would ultimately become. (Another early senior staffer, Joanna Drake Earl, shared her recollections here.) While reporting the magazine story, I interviewed David Neuman, their chief programming honcho. He was clearly the right choice. His producer creds spanned entertainment – he was a producer of everything from NBC’s Cosby, Cheers and Family Ties, to award winning news programming on Channel One. He ultimately became the president of Walt Disney Television and Touchstone Television, and was heading up a cutting edge Internet entertainment company when Current knocked on his door. He’s a person of unusual humor and energy, the kind of guy that you would not only want in your lifeboat, but would help you forget that you needed to be in one in the first place. His unsinkable spirit served him well in Current’s early days:
“It was Oct 2004, nine months before we launched. There were about nine people, four of whom were senior execs. Joel [Hyatt] told me when he wanted the network to launch — August 2005. I looked around. There was no phone, no computer, no staff to speak of, no library, no content, no concept, nothing. Just a really really cool, but empty office.” Neuman takes a dramatic pause. “I said you’re kidding, right?” After Hyatt and Gore stared back at him – “really, really silently” — Neuman thought to himself, “oh my God. They’re not kidding.” He chuckled at the memory. “It was around March or April that I got down on my hands and knees and said 'I’m begging you to give me some extra time!'”
There was none to be had. Hyatt and Gore had bought a Canadian news network, NWI, and the programming was scheduled to end August 1st. After that, there would be dead air — and the people associated with the old network had already been let go and reassigned. “There was no net. It was like I’d gone through the five stages of grief, but the bargaining phase didn’t work out so well,” he laughed.
Neuman was so generous with his time, and so little of his direct voice got into the final piece, that I'm posting most of his Q&A with me here. It's long I know, but will certainly come in handy for any intrepid reader who wants to start a cable network, or, who simply wants to think about engaging their constituents in a deeper way.
FC: What’s the name of the thingee on the bottom left of the screen that tells me how far along the pod is? Why is that important?
We refer to it as the Progress Bar — is there any other name for it? When Frank Lentz (who is Sr. VP, Creative Affairs) and I were conceiving of the format, we were committed to reinventing a news and information product for a young adult audience. As such, we were always trying to innovate, and this was one of those innovations, which of course we borrowed from computer conventions, but we thought it was quite applicable and useful for our unique TV product. We just thought it would be cool, and useful. We were surprised at how many people commented, and still comment, about how much they like it. It's also become sort of iconic for the network, and now we're seeing it imitated here and there, which we find amusing.
As a programmer and storyteller, I liked it for another reason: it poses what is classically called a “dramatic question.” Namely, what happens next? And something else is coming soon. So we thought that, in a linear viewing experience, it helps our “stickiness” because if for whatever reason you’re not enthralled by what you are seeing now, don’t worry, something else is coming up soon. Look — the bar is half over! As we used to say when I worked at Disney, if you don’t like the weather around here, stick around five minutes.
FC: How big is the programming team?
There are about 160 programming-related employees in the US, and 20 or so in the UK. In the US slightly more than half are in San Francisco and slightly less than half in LA. Of course that's not counting the hundreds and hundreds of vc2 contributors, who are not technically employees but who are responsible for so much of the creative product. We have very few "executives," almost no bureaucracy, and virtually all those people either facilitate the contributions of our audience or make stuff.
FC: What is the process by which the network created programming goes on the air? Who, for example, chooses the Current Controversy? What issues come up at programming meetings? How often do you hold them?
First and foremost, we are taking our cues from the audience — the vc2 contributors, uploaders, etc. all bring us content, and of course the community online express opinions, suggests ideas, and so forth, and we are always listening carefully and responding. There are probably 25 of us internally who read every piece of email from every viewer too. The decision-making inside the organization is deliberately diffused, so that lots and lots of people with a wide range of perspectives "decide" what is getting on the air. (And of course we put on what the online community vote on each week.)
We have several production units, each of which is empowered to greenlight content: Vanguard, v2 in the UK and the US, Google Current, a "Radar" unit (which produces the super-short information pods, like about what dvds are being released, or new books, etc.), and small units in LA and San Francisco that produce pods of all kinds. Everyone knows all of the pod family names, like Current Controversy, and individuals throughout the organization, on both continents, choose the pod family that is most relevant for a pod, including "Current Controversy."
Speaking practically, and not counting the community, upwards of 50 people probably make direct, individual decisions of what gets on the air. And that’s also not counting the “Google Top Rising Searches” pod that appears often at the bottom of the hour. That pod is largely auto-generated with up-the-hour information about what the top rising searches are, and aside from profanties that might be intercepted, by master control, the information goes directly from the audience’s searching behavior on Google to our television screen.
There is a major programming meeting each morning, and both continents participate. Ideas are constantly discussed, especially as they concern news events of the day and week, so that we can make sure what we're programming and scheduling is as "current" as possible. For instance, if we know that people in our audience are all talking about something, or interested in something that's going on, we try to make sure that we're responsive to that. Of course, as always, our first instinct is to get something directly from the audience, through vc2 uploads or outreach directly to the vc2 community. So vc2 weighs in and lets everyone know what they have or what they might get. Now, if the story is something we might call a "Current Controversy" — which might be anything from immigration issues to Viacom suing YouTube, there might be something we can do internally to complement and supplement the pieces that we get from vc2. Often it might be a cool piece that explains the facts behind the controversy, analyzes it a bit, and gives more useful information for the conversation amongst the viewers.
Besides the daily meetings, there are programming meetings of all kinds going on all the time. Individual departments meet to constantly revise, improve, and re-focus their efforts on what's current — surfing the waves of events and viewer interest to try to make a compelling product every day. Short- and long-turn ideas are always being discussed and adjusted. We dial up or dial down production or scheduling on topics according to their relevance, every day. And of course we try to keep our eye on the larger ball of our mission and goals, and to strive for excellence in staying true to them.
We do have an extra vetting and review process for pods that are considered journalistically sensitive — to make sure the facts are correct, and that if it's produced by Current, it's not one-sided.
FC: How does your programming philosophy drive your business model, or is it the other way around?
Al and Joel have always said that the mission comes first, and everyone knows that. They paired up the mission with the outstanding business model of cable television, with its lucrative dual-revenue stream, to give us an excellent and financially secure start. They determined that business model would support the mission best and they were right. We developed the programming philosophy directly off of the mission: to democratize the media, and do something transformational. So we reverse-engineered a network so that it would be structured exactly for those goals: vc2, shortform (to enable meaningful participation by everyone), sharing the programming decisions with the audience, etc.
FC: Are there any plans to add your version of more “traditional” programming — like a talk show, game show or anchor-style news program?
The audience tells us over and over that they like that we're different and unique. The shuffle format and our unique pod "families" make us an alternative to all of the networks that feature half-hour and one-hour shows; the audience likes that and we like that. This is all so radical that we did some testing, just to make sure we weren't out of our minds. As it turns out, even the testing company was shocked at how favorably the programming and innovative structure were received by the target audience. (That's not supposed to happen! Witness "Seinfeld's" legendary bad test — things that are new and different often test badly.) While anything is possible, the "anchor-style news program" in particular would seem to be a non-starter with our audience, which doesn't accept the authority-figure concept of a traditional anchor, and is bored out of its mind by traditional "news". So I couldn't see that happening. As to other genres, we'll listen carefully to the audience and take their cues. Hard to imagine us doing what everyone else does, because the audience doesn't want us to.
FC: The on-air talent all seem incredibly nice. Even the snarkier offerings – your news “reader” for example, stops short of true “Colbert Report” snottiness. Is that by design?
Haha, no, not by design, but what an interesting observation. I think what you're observing is attributable to the fact that Generation Y, of which they are almost all a part, is, generally speaking, actually a very upbeat, entrepreneurial, optimistic group. Cynicism, snottiness, pessimism, and all of that are actually more characteristic of Gen Xers and Baby Boomers, in my experience. So I’m not surprised that our on-air talent are quintessentially Generation Y. Max and Jason, whom I think are the epitome of what you are describing, started their careers by pitching themselves to Current with a short film they made about hedonism vs. spirituality. Laura Ling, Mariana Van Zeller, Nzinga Blake...as I think through the list, I can tell you that we were just trying to hire the most interesting, smart people we could find, who had something relevant to say and whom the audience would want to watch. And over and over again, they seem to not share the cynicism of older generations. That's just the way it is (and it's fine with me). Now of course I'm generalizing but I think you get the point — and I think if you throw the net out there with that age group you will notice the same thing. And keep in mind, the average age of our on-air talent is probably 25. That's extremely young for just about any adult network. Even the greats of the other networks — Jon Stewart, Steven Colbert, et al — are 20 years older. They're in a different cultural zone than our folks.
FC: What are your programming standards? Even your “Current Hotties” are fairly tame. Any plans to add spicier programming –- in the HBO vein? Why? Does that include foul language?
I am chuckling because I guess it's all in the eyes of the beholder...we certainly do adult topics all the time. (Meth and Sex comes to mind, which was the name of a pod we did about a new HIV epidemic caused by risky behavior amongst meth addicts in major cities.) Our programming concept is that we're about what's going on for young adults, in their voice, and from their point of view, and we just try to be real and authentic to the subject. Sometimes the subject is g-rated and sometimes it's adult. These things also tend to fluctuate on our air because what's "current" ebbs and flows. Certainly we don't avoid adult topics and situations in pods — it seems that almost every day we specify that a given pod needs some type of warning to viewers, and/or needs to be scheduled in adult hours (which for us ranges from 9pm to 6am EDT and midnight-6am EDT for even more "mature" subjects). (Are you watching largely in the daytime?) We try to err on the side of telling the "truth" of a story — and sometimes that "truth" needs to be seen with four-letter-words intact. Of course we have to conform to the standards that are in our contracts with operators, and the standards are different for subscription cable (like HBO) than they are for channels like us, MTV, FX, etc.
FC: As a follow-up — I watched a pod, a truly riveting one, about an African woman who had been beaten by a mob organized by her husband after she asked him to wear a condom. It was brutal, graphic, and true –- and included a small amount of nudity. Frankly, I can’t stop thinking about it. How does that pod comply with your standards?
Well, in order to tell that very important story truthfully, we couldn't sugarcoat it or excise what was most jarring about it. I hope that you would not find it gratuitous, either. (So often that's the test — do we really need to include that element to tell the story truthfully and correctly? Or are we just showing it for its "tabloid" or lurid appeal?) But we always ran it with a warning that it contains disturbing imagery.
FC: In a weird way, Current sort of feels like a 24 hour short-documentary film festival. (I was STUNNED when I realized how much time had passed and I was still happily watching.) Is this the vibe you’re going for? Will it stay this way?
Well when we designed the format, we were hoping it would have exactly that effect: to be addictive, surprising, unpredictable, and keep you watching. The word “addictive” comes up in our email more than any other adjective when people describe us. And I’m delighted that, even in “one screen” mode, you experienced that. We aim to make it an addiction that no one has to feel badly about. When we conceived of the progress bar, and the various (automatically generated) “coming up” graphics, and the extreme variety of the content, what we hoped for was that it would have exactly the effect you described.
FC: How much time, on average, does your programming team spend coaching/supporting viewer created content? How does it happen? On phone? E-mail? What is the ratio of true newcomers to professional camera operators? (There’s a 16 year old kid who created an AMAZING Sony ad. Is that common?) How much editing do you do once something is voted up the food chain and gets on the air for either the VC2 stuff or the VCAMs?
It’s very hard to answer this question because vc2 permeates everything we do; we don’t keep records about what percentage of time or what hours and minutes all of our 180 programming staff spend dealing with vc2. In a sense, our entire network’s central purpose and activity is coaching and supporting vc2 content. Our vc2 teams in LA, San Francisco, and London are in constant contact with vc2 producers everywhere — all over the world. With regard to true newcomers to professionals, I don’t know the exact ratio, but non-professionals (as we would define as people who don’t earn their living producing video content) certainly outnumber professionals. One of our more prolific producers, someone in the medical field, told us that he had never picked up a camera before seeing Current, and he learned what he knows through our training on the website. Our vc2 staffers communicate with vc2 contributors in every way. And one of the more interesting anecdotes is that some of our most urgent and compelling vc2 pods were uploaded to us from crisis zones via instant messenger. (Two that come to mind are one from Gaza during combat there and one from New Orleans during the Katrina disaster.) So other than smoke signals we seem to figure out every imaginable way to not only communicate with our vc2 community, but to get their work product.
Re the 16 year olds, that generation is almost as likely to make media as to consume it, so we just aren’t surprised anymore, but I will say this: I think Current will be the first job and first big exposure for a tremendous number of media professionals in the 21st century. It’s an unprecedented place for the next generation of Edward R. Murrows, Christiane Amanpours, Anderson Coopers, and even Spielbergs and Spike Lees to get their start. We provide an unprecedented open-door for people to tell an important story, make innovative media, and communicate with their peer group both on tv and online.
FC: I find the visual elements of your programming, from the pods to the promos, quite beautiful. What is your philosophy on this? How do you describe your visual identity?
Our objective was very immodest: to create the most beautiful, innovative TV network around to look at. We wanted our music and graphics to set a new high-water mark in mind-blowing beauty. We still are very ambitious beyond where we already are—but of course, we’re delighted you like it!
One thing that we accepted from the beginning was that, as a startup network on a lean-and-mean budget, we were not going to be able to outspend the big networks on programming. But funny thing about graphics—it doesn't cost more to make beautiful graphics than to make ugly ones. But the aesthetic of most networks is pretty tired and ugly, to be truthful. And there are so many great young graphic artists out there, just dying to get a chance to express something new, innovative, and cool. So it was very easy—just tell them to make something really cool and let them go do it. And then have the nerve to put it on the air. It helps that because our audience is young adults, we never have to worry about being ahead of their sensibilities. We are their sensibilities—and vc2 will always keep us that way.
By the way, one thing that drives us all nuts is the amount of signal degradation that happens routinely in television. So we're just grateful that what starts out as stunning when it's on one of our artist's computers is not completely wrecked by the time it gets to you. It really does lose about 80% of its vividness and clarity most of the time, especially way up the dial, like we are. This will all change with HD and other improvements, but it's very annoying now.
FC: Why did you want this job?
Well first of all, let me just say that I’m grateful to have it. Why did I want it? There’s a graffiti artist in our “storytelling” module of our online training who describes the allure of the “White Train.” That was like the Holy Grail for a graffiti artist: sneaking into a yard of subway trains and finding a pristine white one, untouched. Current was my white train. I really got turned on by how radical and ambitious Joel and Al were — they wanted to do something extremely different, and empowering to its audience, and important. They had, and have, a soul beyond wanting just a successful business. They wanted to do something democratizing and transformational. Beyond that, they were openminded about everything else: the format, the aesthetic, the look and feel, the style and the substance. In short, it was a creative person’s dream come true. I mean, how much more fun could you have than that?