Wednesday, January 16, 2008

24 hours on the new site

Current TV is the brainchild of former vice-president Al Gore and Joel Hyatt to "democratize the media". If they only knew what it's become...

So who am I?

I'm a veteran of the original website, a former community moderator, I've gotten 3 pieces picked for airplay and one actually made it on TV - the other 2 died in the approval process (pods on the film Jesus Camp and Death of A President never made it to airplay because of their legal dept. and various other reasons). My story wasn't unique, dozens if not more of the pods picked for TV by the Current.TV community never made it to airplay.

But let's start from the beginning.

Current.TV started out as a noble experiment to empower everyday people, from video producers to webcammers to produce stories called "pods" which would make up 30% of the content of Current TV, a station formerly known as NewsWorld International (NWI) owned by Vivendi. Al Gore was looking to form a station that was based on grassroots organizing, a savvy army of footsoldiers with camcorders -- and would, in time, take back the airwaves from a glut of corporate media. Gore was looking for something that would make up for the failures of conventional media, and give young people a voice.

"You must become the change you wish to see in the world," was the mantra for Current TV's army of independent producers, armed with the knowledge that their stories would be published online at Current.TV. The online community at Current's website would serve as citizen programmers for the channel, and through a "Greenlighting" process would vote for a winning piece of video week, and have it put on the air. This would be their model for media democracy. Citizen producers and citizen programming, it was a fantastic concept.

A pay scale was established for every story you got on television, $500 for the first 2 stories, then $750, then $1000 for every story from there on in. It was a dream - you could conceivably make a living producing a few pods per month for the network, and we were all excited at this prospect and mobilized everyone we knew to tune in to Current TV to see this revolution in media take place.

"The problem with online democracies is people", you can quote me on that. At least this is what Current's staff was learning. Issues constantly arose in their online community, much of it about their programming, or lack of it, by the community.

Some of the many issues raised by Current's online community:

1. Pods were getting voted on the air by the community and not ever showing up on TV.

2. Video pods that were showing up on TV were hand picked by the staff over other pods, seemingly based on superficial criteria or topics. (eg. fashion/style over news/journalism)

3. The staff picked plenty of stories per week from the producer pool, but the ones voted for by the community, which equaled 52 stories per year (eventually we fought for 2 per week, or 104 per year), were often heavily scrutinized and sometimes rejected for on air play.

And so it went on and on.

Then people noticed a pattern where stories picked for and commissioned by the network began to show up on TV with an eerie similarity to regular old media: fashion over politics, hot cars over community activism, beautiful models (current hottie) over feminist issues, Paris Hilton's cellphone hacking vs. well... anything else. Current seemed to be programming a channel that was contradictory to their mission. A channel that was supposed to free the airwaves up for 18-34 year olds was rapidly becoming a vapid channel of pretty people selling clothes, music, celebrity gossip, and hot trends.

All of this was a glaring inconsistency with Current TV's original mission of democratizing the media, and their community spoke out time and time again in their message boards about the superficiality of everything; from the stories picked for TV each week, the refusal to air community picks, down to the fact that every on-air host was a walking advertisement for everything wrong with TV with a touch of ageism and anorexia thrown in for good measure (even MTV had Kurt Loder). Current was so obsessed with their image they were missing the point of the channel's creation: to democratize TV. In the process they became part of the problem they were supposed to be solving.

There were a lot of problems, but the online community was vibrant, many spoke out about these issues in the forums, and at the very least, we felt the feedback we provided would be heard and acted upon. If we only knew what was in store.

About a year ago, without any input the community of users I was familiar with, the new (formerly was launched, and the veterans of the website kind of looked at it and said "what the f**k is this?" Many of us said it looked like their former Youtube model was abandoned in favor of a new website that was Facebook meets a Digg/Delicious link-sharing model with a touch of Stickam thrown in for good measure. Neither concept was original, nor were their merging compelling enough to be truly innovative.

The new emphasis of the redesigned website would utilize in-house staff to provide daily content as links, and encourage the community to do the same. The previous model where users produced and submitted video pods & had them voted upon by the users was now given a back seat, in both prominence and attention.

The existing community was stunned as we watched the leaderboard, the long standing method of community participation to get a video on TV abruptly removed.

The contentious message boards where frustrated producers argued with staffers that they were ruining the network and the website, was deleted.

And in the process of all of this happening, many of us felt that the noble experiment where we would democratize the media - abruptly ended.

Yes, Virginia, Current TV still takes user contributed videos, but it seems to almost be an after thought. The pay scale was thrown out. Current claimed removing the payscale would allow them to pay their community contributers more money for their videos, but the opposite is what actually happened. Producers were consistently now offered less than the $1000 per story they were previously getting - given a 'take it or leave it' attitude. And those stories that were getting on air were heavily edited, re-edited, and in some cases had the context they were originally shot in removed.


The site's relaunch, which removed much of the emphasis from their original battle cry of "democratizing the media" and attracting people to create Current TV's content showed me one thing, there's no one steering the ship anymore at Current TV - it's a adrift in a sea of media look-a-likes, pretty much what many feared was going to happen. Gore and Hyatt turned a promising idea of a real revolution in television over to the same media insiders that have dominated the industry for years, and much to the channel's detriment.

Stage 1 of the website, which is over, netted Current TV a large list of hungry media producers that can make them cheap content -- just as long as they're "on the same page as them". 30% of their content would come from their viewers, even if those viewers were a list of producers that would create content the programming department required and the stories they assigned or commissioned now.

More than a few producers have left the current community on their own out of disgust (plisko), some producers went back into the commercial field (yours truly), and others have flocked back to YouTube (markdaycomedy) and other video sites where they can try to make a living. Many more simply just never came back a month or two after the new site launched.

Stage 2 of the Current TV website appears to have minimized the focus on building a unique community of video producers and citizen programmers who want to change the way TV is made and shifted to a more inclusive model where people talk about TV and submit their ideas as links.

Many of us flocked to Current TV at the start because we were from the old media model, we hated that model and we wanted to see fundamental change in the industry. Current seemed to be the answer to what we were looking for, but it left many of us wishing for more.


A few parting thoughts, for those who think I'm only concentrating on the negative. I think the Current Journalism dept. at the channel is actually one of the better things to come from their efforts, they've produced some fine pieces and worked with many producers, including myself, to help get some timely ENG/News style stories on the air. My main gripes are with some of their webdev and on-air programming decisions, and the disconnect with their online community and TV audience.

As of 1/29/08 many new changes to the video section and front page rolled out, and some issues raised by myself and other users at the website were addressed. The leaderboard seems to remain a holdout. It's months later and no progress has been seen towards returning to some type of a transparent voting model for citizen programmers - if it returns it will be a good day for Current's VC2 community of producers who felt left out of the new website. But frankly, I doubt message boards will ever return. That being said. I think this company has made some pretty bad decisions, and I'm fairly certain nothing is going to change in the short term, at least not without public criticism of what they're doing. Criticism seems to be the one thing that moves them from their slumber -- loud public criticism.

These words are written in the hopes that Current sees the error of their ways and becomes a legitimate force for change in media, instead of emulating all the problems and things that are wrong with it now. If it can't change, show the people running the place the door and bring in people who will make it work the way it was supposed to.

We seem to have come a long way since this was said in 2005:

"Well, as you know, viewer-contributed content is essential to our mission, which is about democratizing television. We're about telling stories that aren't being told right now. We're about giving the audience a complete voice and a complete role in what we're doing. Our mission statement begins with working with the audience, to create a new category of content.

So I don't think you're ever going to see us increasing the amount of professionally produced content we offer. But I think what you are going to see is that the quality level of viewer contributions is going to get better and better."

-David Neuman, President of programming, Current TV

Someone recently asked me if I'd ever produce a pod or story for Current.TV again. That's a question I'm not sure how I'd answer. Current managed to get me, a born cynic, excited about their channel at first, which led to me jumping in and for 2 years donating hundreds of hours of my time there. But, and there's a BIG but, let me just say when participating in the experience of democratizing the media and seeing it become reduced to a trite marketing phrase, it leaves a taste in your mouth that is hard to wash away.

former VC^2 producer,

This article is in it's 4th revision.)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Good post! I was on Current for a year on their old system. While it had problems, it still seemed more of a community with lots of feedback. Now it doesn't feel that way at all. I still submit stuff but I get far less response than before.