Current TV: Televising the Evolution
It’s no coincidence that Battleground Minnesota found a home on Current TV. The documentary, a music-video-inspired take on the 2004 U.S. Senate election in Minnesota, shows a series of interviews with political stakeholders and pundits from both sides of the partisan divide. But what sets Battleground apart is the unique team that produced it. Director Gabriel Cheifetz mentored and collaborated with Chris “Shakademic” Johnson and Glenn Scott, two local musicians and young producers at Minneapolis-based Phillips Community TV, producing a piece that was fresh and authentic. Johnson, age 19, and Scott, 21, wrote the film’s hip hop soundtrack and infused the electoral season with some much needed humor.
Battleground Minnesota is one of many “viewer created content” pieces, or VC2, showcased by Current TV. Like everything on the network, the films are short-form, with topics ranging from technology, fashion, music, and video games, to the environment, relationships, spirituality, politics, finance, and parenting—subjects that young adults can rarely find on TV from their own perspectives.
Founded by former U.S. Vice President Al Gore and entrepreneur Joel Hyatt, and launched in August 2005, Current is now available in twenty million homes via Direct TV, Comcast, and Time Warner Cable. Understanding that television is still the most widely accessed form of media in the U.S., Gore and Hyatt saw the opportunity to transform what has traditionally been a one-way medium into a two-way dialogue. They also envisioned a unique format. Instead of regularly scheduled 30-minute and one-hour programs, the Current viewer is presented with a shuffle of three- to ten-minute videos, dubbed “pods,” all with nonfiction content.
Many filmmakers around the country are seeing their work debut on national television thanks to Current TV’s VC2 opportunity, a crucial part of the network’s vision. Roughly thirty percent of the network’s on-air content is produced by its audience. At a time when few independent media sources are thriving, Current has set itself apart from the world of traditional television by harnessing the energy of the independent film community.
Current’s target demographic of 18-to-34 year-olds is known to avoid traditional television news, so the network is designed to show news and information in the voice and from the point of view of its audience—without the usual news desk. Current hopes to build a bridge between television and the Internet—the medium that those in this demographic are most tuned in to—by creating a TV network where viewers have a way to participate like they do on the web. To do this, Current needs filmmakers, especially those who have often opted out of making television, to help create the TV they want to watch.
Opportunities For Independent Filmmakers
Like most of Current’s VC2 videos, Battleground Minnesota came to the network though its Online Studio, www.current.tv. On this community website, filmmakers can access free online training through the VC2 Survival Guide, which includes everything from editing and storytelling tips to a gear guide; can upload their videos; and can get community feedback. Visitors to the site vote on the pieces by giving them a “greenlight.” Every week, the most popular online piece goes on TV.
Current’s goal is to give aspiring producers the tools and mentoring to develop their visions. New producers can be inspired to produce content for Current; those who already have an inventory of short videos without an outlet can see this is a chance to upload them here, possibly making money off of their existing work. Battleground Minnesota’s Cheifetz, Johnson, and Scott are working with Current to develop a professional reel. “Current has given us national exposure, which is huge,” says Cheifetz. “Especially for short-format stuff, that’s amazing.”
The number of producers getting involved grows every day. Take Dean Hamer. As a budding producer with a day job, Hamer is less interested in his professional development than he is in conveying a message. He’s an HIV/AIDS activist who uploaded his first pod to Current TV in early August. Since then, three of his pods have made it to air, and his fourth, which looks at homophobia in the African American community, is currently making its way up the site’s VC2 top-ten list. “A lot of activism goes to the choir,” Hamer says. “This is a way to reach a wider and more diverse audience.”
Also the author of several books with scientific topics, Hamer is compelled by video as a tool. “I was used to communicating with people about serious and important things,” he says, “but I realized that with video you can communicate emotion in a more immediate way.”
Ami Cuneo is another independent producer making use of Current as a platform to build on her repertoire as a filmmaker. From her first piece, an exploratory look at a fish market in New York, to her fourth and most recent, about cowgirls in Hawaii, Cuneo has enjoyed the chance to make work that challenges the TV norm. “Current TV has provided me, in essence, a short-form testing ground,” says Cuneo. “Because I produce short pieces on a variety of topics, Current allows me to experiment with different visual and storytelling styles and see what works.”
Gabe Uhr responded to a call for pieces in Spring 2005 and has been making pods for Current ever since. From Can I Kick It, about the kickball trend among twentysomething scenesters in Washington, DC, to From Russia with Love, a profile of a Russian fashion model, Uhr used the reel he compiled at Current to get a video production job with the United Way.
“The exposure is amazing, and so are the opportunities to go out and meet interesting people,” says Uhr, who spent time working with a comedy troupe before he made his first piece for Current. “I’ve interviewed some people I would never have the chance to know otherwise.” One of those is the drag performer Cookie Buffet. Uhr profiled her for a recent piece called Drag Race, which covers an annual high heel race for charity. “It’s always an interesting process,” adds Uhr,
Because Current’s VC2 program is dedicated to drawing attention to the producers, every pod that makes it to air is accompanied by a producer spotlight, a chance for viewers to learn more about the people who usually remain faceless on other television networks.
VC2 producers also get paid for work that airs on the network. Payment starts as $500 for the first two pieces, then moves to $750 for the third. By the fourth piece, producers make one thousand dollars per video.
Envisioning the Network
“Our audience won’t put up with boring TV,” says David Neuman, Current’s president of programming. “We are out to serve our audience with information that’s either extremely needed, useful, enlightening, entertaining, or preferably, all of the preceding.”
Because 18-to-34 year-olds are incredibly savvy, there is no easy way to do all these things. That’s why Current takes cues from its audience. As Neuman puts it: “Some obvious priorities for a young adult audience are careers, sex, and relationships; marriage and first-time parenting; spirituality and religion; travel and adventure; social and political issues; fashion; and the gamut of entertainment—from video games to the Internet to what’s on their iPods.”
Neuman says he wants content that is both smart and fascinating. “I like the word ‘fascinating,’ because it implies something more than just entertainment. The brain is involved when something is fascinating—there’s an intellectual involvement.”
How is Current redefining news for its audience? “We’re dispensing with tired conventions that are alienating the young adult audience,” says Neuman. This means “rotten storytelling, a stuffy and phony style, a herd mentality, boring execution, hackneyed formats, and outdated ‘rules’ that have nothing to do with good journalism.” Giving a voice to more producers to tell more stories—especially those that are not otherwise being told—is an important part of this vision.
Asked about the decision to make the network’s content short-form, Neuman compares the length of the average pod to that of the average news segment and says that, by comparison, Current’s format actually allows producers to go fairly in-depth.
Aline Allegra, the director of VC2 programming, agrees. “Traditional news segments rarely give enough context,” she says. “The nice thing about making short pieces that are longer than a minute is you can give the viewer more information. You can also get into character development and do more storytelling, and that’s what makes the audience feel something.”
Current’s format is clearly more accessible for aspiring filmmakers. Allegra adds, “If you see something interesting, something that’s going on in your neighborhood, in your world, you can shoot it in an afternoon. And between one interview and some good action footage, you can tell a whole story. It’s easy.”
Old and New Media: Connecting the Dots
More and more people are finding themselves using the Internet as a place to watch video content. According to the Pew Internet and American Life Project, close to one third of people under 29 report downloading video as one of the things they do online. Current hopes to not only appeal to aspiring producers, but also the generation of Internet media-grazers who want to watch compelling, authentic video content from their peers.
Nearly six months after the launch of the network, it appears this strategy is working. At the time this article is being written, there have been nearly 900 pods uploaded to the www.current.tv, and 140 of those had made it to air on the network. And there’s room for much more. As programming president David Neuman puts it, “We have an amazing opportunity for the audience—24 hours a day, seven days a week of programming to fill. We can take as much great VC2 product as the audience is capable of delivering.”
Gabriel Cheifetz and the Battleground Minnesota team have taken Neuman up on his offer. For their second piece, they turned their lens on high school military recruiting and created a video called No Child Left Behind. The piece hit the Current TV airwaves this February.
TWILIGHT GREENAWAY is the viewer-created content coordinator for Current TV’s Online Studio. She previously worked as an editor for the youth media source WireTap.
© 2006 National Alliance for Media Arts and Culture. All Rights Reserved.