[UPDATED BELOW and the body has been edited for more clarity]
"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
As some of you may know all of us here at Media Crashers are citizen video producers who have been past supporters and contributors to Current TV , Al Gore's cable network. Over the past few months, many of us have been very troubled by the changes at Current which seem to be taking away the essential genius that the network represented: putting citizens in control of what they see on TV.
Originally, members of the Current website had two options: those who had production skills could submit "citizen journalism" videos for consideration as TV content and those who didn't could still participate, in a very real way, by becoming "citizen programmers." Any member could contribute their vote to "greenlight" submissions and this would push the videos they liked up the ranks. The heart of this voting system was was called "the leaderboard" which was like a top 1000 list of the videos as ranked by the voters. There was a unique, dramatic, thrill to watching your video, or a video you voted for enter at about 200 or 300 and slowly rise and fall through the ranks, depending on how well it did. To win the number one spot was the ultimate rush and the greatest validation a producer could receive. The process was also very open. Just like a democracy where citizens can watch the votes being counted, the web interface displayed the greenlight voters, the scores, and the value of each person's vote so that it was possible to go back and do the math if someone wanted to.
Unfortunately, this whole system of bringing the people directly into the programming choices was done away with as the final stage of what appears like a slow takeover by the Current staff. Ironically, this was right about the time Al Gore won an emmy for "interactive television"
The "redesigned" website has no leaderboard and it looks more like a social networking meets DIGG/Delicious page where staff and members blog their thoughts. People can still upload videos but they are all buried in the mechanics of things like collecting each other's profiles, sharing links with each other, answering staff questions with webcam videos, following staff "assignment desk" projects rather than making up their own, and collecting links to viral videos they like. These things in themselves are not necessarily bad additions to the website. The problem is that all of this stuff goes into a giant blob of "content" which also includes in house staff videos mixed in, with no separation or distinction. The "leaders" in the community seem to me much more staff centered than member centered. As a citizen producer, you can't even find a list of your own videos in your profile.
So how has this all worked out?
Someone just sent me some interesting research they did about Current TV.
Here is a screenshot they took of the "People" page at Current.com. It is the front page of this section where the most popular and most active people can be found.
Here it is:
Click on it for a larger image:
This next picture shows the exact same screen shot but the researcher went through the profiles of each person and anyone who is on the Current Staff has been marked:
Click for Larger Image:
I'll let the images speak for themselves.
Apparently some in the comments believe that it is the ability to pitch stuff to Current that makes it democratic. I would submit that every network in the world accepts pitches from people, even ordinary people which is what all feelance TV producers start out as. Listening to anybody who wants to talk is not what makes something democratic. It is the process people can use to put their voices forward that defines "democratizing the media." I don't believe that a cable network staff is an underrepresented minority when it comes to deciding TV content. I also don't believe an "assignment desk" where staff tell the people what kinds of productions they want submitted is a brave new approach to making television. Democritizing the media means that people can start the conversation, submit their ideas and then look at everyone's ideas and vote, in an open and verifiable way, for the ones that should go on TV. The Current staff have always made their own content along side and they have also made their own choices from the submissions. I don't have a problem with that. The difference today is that the audience is no longer bypassing staff and choosing content independently as a way of balancing out staff picks (or vise versa). That is the heart of the problem for me. The voting today has no transparency and it is a "recommendation" not a final decision.
I my recent contacts with Current I have been informed that they understand the problems with their website and have changes coming including a "bigger and better" leaderboard. I'm not sure what this means. It was the "improvements" they made to the old leaderboard that led to it's dysfunction and eventual termination in the first place. Despite my lack of confidence, I will remain hopeful. The community that they inspired is still there trying to make a difference.