Is Anybody Watching?

In its struggle for cable eyeballs, Al Gore's S.F.-based Current TV is off to a rocky start

The result is a hodgepodge, in which compelling pieces, such as a recent look at the plight of Vietnamese chicken farmers faced with bankruptcy in the wake of the bird flu scare, often reside in close proximity with banal profiles of rock 'n' roll bands and clips from the latest movies.

Anchoring the eclectic presentation at the top and bottom of each hour is something called "Google Current," in which viewers are provided up-to-date reports on what users of the Internet search engine are looking at most. In recent cycles, that included a report on what a death row inmate in North Carolina had as his last meal (pizza and a six-pack of Royal Crown Cola). Another item drew attention to the inventor of the Bumper Dumper, a toilet seat that attaches to a trailer hitch, enabling campers and fishermen to defecate off the ends of their SUVs rather than having to trek into the woods.

Although the channel bills itself as providing news and information for young people, by young people, others question Current's self-professed journalism.

"I don't see much news there," says Robert Thompson, who heads the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University. "Not if you define news as the important events we need to know as part of a civil society."

Higgins, of Broadcasting & Cable magazine, takes a different view. "I admit to liking the programming. I think it's what you call a good grazing channel," he says, adding, "but then I've only seen it a couple of times. The cable company where I live doesn't carry it."

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