THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING
Alex Beam

Al Gore's low voltage network

Email|Print| Text size + By Alex Beam
Globe Columnist / November 12, 2007

As the television writers' strike slowly gnaws its way through the TV grid, the question arises: What else is there to watch? Doesn't Al Gore have some kind of television channel, among his many worthy pursuits? Maybe nobody there's on strike.

Al Gore's channel is called Current, carried in the Northeast by Comcast and others, and no, their staffers are not on strike. That is because Current is a "user-generated" television channel that broadcasts myriad brief segments, called "pods." Current calls itself the "TV network made by the people who watch it." No stranger to orotund claims, Gore says Current allows viewers to "reclaim American democracy by talking about the choices we have to make."

Here is a Current feature: "Webcam It Sexy. Booty calls, first times and never agains - we want to know about them all." As I watched the quasi-pornographic "Tips for When She's Too Drunk and She's Too High" on the website I wondered: Does Tipper know about this?

With as many as 15 pods broadcast each hour, it's hard to generalize about Current's content. Much of it is out-and-out moronic. On Tuesday I watched some skateboard idiots run amok in South Beach. In a recurring segment called "This Is College," "Jake Futernick and Steve Basilone try to hit all the 'Big Ten' colleges in three weeks in a $596 car." Here we are, reclaiming democracy, one kegstand at a time.

Under the rubric of "The Current Scene" I saw a feature on gun-totin' gals: "These girls may look young and harmless but underneath their teenage skin is a passion for shooting guns." Here is the teaser for what Current calls a "Newsblast!": "Bra pockets are awesome, Fred Thompson is less awesome, and energy drinks are too awesome for you . . . weakling."

Now two years old, Current doesn't like to talk about viewership. There are no numbers available, because the channel is not Nielsen-rated. The channel is on the remote in about 50 million cable households, but that tells you nothing about who, if anyone, is watching. Programming chief David Neuman says that Current is winning over youthquake "influencers." "We know that it is resonating in a very promising way."

Some advertisers like Sony, Toyota, and L'Oreal sponsor recurring features called "pod families." Levi's sponsors "This Is College." Many of the features don't yet have sponsors. SNLKagan senior analyst Derek Baine estimates that Current gets $59 million a year in subscriber payments from their cable carriers. Why would anyone pay for this junk, I asked him? "They've generated a lot of buzz," Baine said. He has never watched Current.

To be fair, some of the pods are quite good. Al-pal Bono contributed a three-part series, "A Day in the Life of The Edge," which is at the very least buzz-worthy. (The Edge is U2 guitarist David Howell Evans, whom Bono addresses as "The Edge," not "Mr. Edge.") I liked the part where Bono croons "In a Little While" in a Baywatch-style lifeguard shack.

Current has its own team of about 15 journalists, who do some credible work. A stringer named Yasmin Vossoughian filed a well-produced, balanced account of young Iranians' views on nuclear energy development and the United States. A viewer-contributed pod told the story of Mohan Bista, whose bid to launch an independent radio station was not exactly welcomed by the Nepalese authorities.

But the alchemy isn't yet quite right. One bizarre episode showed reporter Adam Yamaguchi trying to prove that terrorists operate openly in Pakistan. "We managed to find a [telephone] number for a major terrorist group," Yamaguchi reported, "but didn't have much success getting through." Maybe you should have tried their cell. I watched a five-minute infomercial for West Coast Customs, of "Pimp My Ride" fame, that was masquerading as "user-generated content."

Where the news is concerned, programming chief Neuman allows that Current has plenty of room to grow. But as for tuning in on youngsters' zeitgeist, Neuman says Current is broadcasting on the right wavelength. "We're like a DJ in a nightclub that is sensing the mood of the crowd, dialing up or dialing down, according to the mood."

Alex Beam is a Globe columnist. His e-dress is beam@globe.com.

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