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It's Friday afternoon and, despite a daylong series of appointments, Joel Hyatt shows little sign of fatigue. When you're the CEO of a new cable channel and your partner is the former vice president of the United States, the office can be pretty much wherever you happen to be. This day it's Paragon Restaurant & Bar, an eatery near SBC Park and the epicenter of what was once San Francisco's bustling dot-com district.
Tieless and with his sport coat slung over the back of his chair, the millionaire entrepreneur, ex-Stanford business professor, and now Al Gore TV buddy is holding court in roughly 90-minute sessions, and he's running late. "Sorry, give me just a second," he says, escorting an attractive blond woman in her 20s with a "hire me" look on her face toward the door.
Hyatt and Gore are on a mission to claim the MTV generation for democracy, and Hyatt is ebullient about their prospects. "Al and I have learned from the successes and failures of other cable networks, and we're confident this is a winning concept," he says. Ending months of speculation, the duo in May made it official, paying French media conglomerate Vivendi-Universal a reported $70 million to buy an obscure cable news channel called Newsworld International to obtain its coveted slots in the lineups of several cable TV providers. Now comes the hard part. Next April, their newly formed company, INdTV Holdings, will launch an as-yet-unnamed news and information channel -- to be based in San Francisco -- aimed at accomplishing what many have dreamed about, but no one has mastered: turning the 18-to-34 crowd into news junkies.
No interest in public affairs? No problem. Al and Joel have a plan. Provide news and information for young people by young people. Empower them. Let them define what's relevant. Let them tell stories in ways that only they can. "Contrary to what a lot of people believe, young people want news, and we're going to provide news, but not necessarily the 'Two soldiers died today in Iraq' kind of news," insists Hyatt, who, at age 53, is three years Gore's junior.
But what exactly does that mean? Is Hyatt (who co-authored a book, The Long Boom, that predicted an era of unprecedented prosperity just a few milliseconds before the dot-com crash began) actually onto something? Or is this new venture destined to be another joke-line bonanza for those who can't get enough of ridiculing the man who snatched defeat from the jaws of victory in the 2000 presidential race?
Verdicts will have to wait. By design, the INdTV game plan is under tight wraps. The few details Hyatt will disclose now are general: The channel expects to start with 120 employees and ramp up to perhaps 300 within a year. Although production facilities will be located in San Francisco (at press time he and Gore were "close" to signing a commercial lease), Hyatt purposely avoids the word "studio," lest that give away whether INdTV intends to air live newscasts. He quotes Orson Welles: "Don't give them what they think they want; give them what they never thought was possible." And what might that be? Sorry, you'll have to wait to find out.
Yes, it will be a 24-hour channel. Yes, it will use the "documentary format." Yes, it will also use the "comedic format." It will be "irreverent." It will be "bold." It will be "programming that young people care about, told in their language, as only they can."
There are already those who can't wait for it to fail. From the moment word of the venture surfaced, conservative pundits have salivated at the prospect that Gore might be gearing up to create a liberal news channel to countervail Fox News. The former veep may have helped fuel the chatter with a speech last year in which he singled out Fox and radio talker Rush Limbaugh as part of a media "fifth column" whose task is to dispense "talking points" for the Republicans.
Gore is known to have arranged meetings between key Hollywood figures and a Chicago couple who were prime investors in Air America, the liberal talk-radio experiment starring Al Franken that has floundered since its launch earlier this year. Hyatt, in the first interviews he's granted since the Newsworld acquisition was announced, disclaims the idea that the channel will have political overtones. "This is not going to be politically oriented," he insists. "It is not ideologically driven."
Yet it is easy to see why some may be skeptical. Among those most intimately involved with the project are a veritable who's who of super-connected Democratic donors and operatives, from INdTV's board of directors on down. Besides Gore and Hyatt, those directors include San Francisco investment banker Richard Blum, the husband of U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein; Ron Burkle, the billionaire Los Angeles investment banker and Democratic megadonor; and Ed Renwick, a partner in Burkle's investment firm. (That firm, Yucaipa Companies, claims former President Bill Clinton and the Rev. Jesse Jackson among its directors.)
Indeed, perhaps the least publicized aspect of the Gore-Hyatt venture is where the money has come from. Securities and Exchange Commission records and other public documents suggest that a big chunk of the funding for INdTV is being supplied, at least indirectly, by ordinary Californians who probably have no idea that they are invested in the former vice president's next career move. That's because two of the six "beneficial owners" listed in documents filed with the SEC are private equity funds controlled by the Burkle and Blum firms, respectively. And each of those funds is slated to receive huge investments from the California Public Employees' Retirement System, a $160 billion public pension fund controlled by Democratic officials whose party and campaigns have been supported by huge contributions from Burkle and Blum.