Is Anybody Watching?

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

Six months into Al Gore's experiment to turn twentysomethings into TV news junkies, the former vice president's San Francisco-based cable channel -- Current TV -- appears to have hit a snag.

Prospective viewers, even those who've heard of the youth-oriented news and information channel, are having a hard time finding it on cable systems, either because cable providers aren't carrying Current or because they've relegated it to more expensive -- and therefore less purchased -- cable packages.

In San Francisco, home to Current's headquarters in refurbished digs across King Street from SBC Park, Comcast offers Current on its Channel 125. But it is available only to subscribers who purchase the cable company's most expensive tier of digital programming. And that places it out of reach for many in the 18- to 34-year-old demographic that Current seeks to woo.

"We stay in touch with what our customers want, and right now I would say [Current] is definitely a niche channel," says Andrew Johnson, Comcast's vice president for communication for the Bay Area. "It's not up to us to create a demand for Current."

If Johnson sounds a bit defensive, it could be because Current's high-profile chairman, Gore, and its CEO, former Stanford business professor Joel Hyatt, have been on a tear lately, jawboning the cable industry for better "carriage" as they struggle to get viewers to take notice.

In speeches around the country, Gore has lit into cable executives for not putting on programs "that are in the best interest of the American people." In what industry insiders refer to as "guerrilla lobbying," Gore, who is said to spend about a week a month in San Francisco as the channel's marquee executive, delivered a speech last October at an outdoor rally (and Current-sponsored rock concert) in Philadelphia that was literally within earshot of Comcast's corporate headquarters.

The Gore offensive "tells me that frustration has set in" that Current hasn't been warmly received by cable companies, says John Higgins, deputy editor of Broadcasting & Cable magazine.

Gore and Hyatt launched the privately held Current last August after paying French media giant Vivendi Universal a reported $70 million for an obscure cable news channel called Newsworld International. (Current's biggest stakeholders are private equity funds controlled by Democratic Party megadonor Ron Burkle and San Francisco financier Richard Blum, the husband of U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein.) The prize: Newsworld's coveted long-term contracts with cable and satellite operators for a place in their lineups -- so-called carriage rights -- something that no cable channel starting from scratch could otherwise hope to obtain.

However, in the months since it went on the air, Current has yet to announce any new cable deals to expand the meager distribution footprint it inherited when it bought Newsworld. It is distributed in only about 20 million households (roughly 50 percent of them via Rupert Murdoch's DIRECTV), barely half the number industry experts say is necessary if Current is to succeed financially.

With power concentrated in the hands of a few cable giants, including Comcast and Time Warner, it's a tough sell for any channel not owned by a media conglomerate to break onto TV screens. But that may be especially true for Current, precisely because its chairman is Gore, observers say. As a U.S. senator, Gore helped push the Cable Act of 1992, which cost the industry many millions of dollars by restricting how cable operators charge consumers and earned him the scorn of some of the same executives whose favor he now needs to help jump-start his fledgling cable enterprise.

"So far I would say it looks like payback time," says cable industry consultant Gary Arlen, a reference to Gore's apparent slow going in winning many converts within the cable sphere. "People in this industry have exceedingly long memories."

Through a spokesman, Hyatt, Current's CEO, declined to be interviewed for this article. Company spokesman Alex Dolan was similarly unwilling to talk with SF Weekly, saying that Hyatt preferred that the company "take a pass" on discussing its business prospects.

Although 20 million households have access to Current, actual viewers constitute only a fraction of that number, industry sources say. As with other niche cable channels, the perceived audience for Current is deemed too small for even ACNielsen to bother measuring.

"It's easy to get lost in the crowd on the cable dial," says Arlen. "At this stage, assuming that you have something people want to watch, the challenge is for viewers to be able to find you."

On the programming side, Current's youth-oriented approach to news and information has received generally mixed reviews. Eschewing the traditional television news format, the channel is built around programming segments of between 30 seconds and seven minutes called "pods" -- minidocumentaries told in the lingua franca of young adults.

Furthermore, about a third of the content is generated by viewers who submit their video pods to Current and are paid between $500 and $1,000 if their work is chosen to air.

(To help it recruit young journalists, the channel has turned to actor Sean Penn, whose video clip on the company's Web site encourages would-be journalists to tell their stories: "So how is Current journalism different? It's the standards. Standards like honesty, accuracy, fairness, and integrity. Current has online training to help you understand them.")

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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