R.I.P. CurrentTV : by Gotham Chopra

It was the spring of 2004 when I got a phone call from former vice president Al Gore. I had met him years earlier while covering the 2000 election working for Channel One News, the controversial news network broadcast in schools. Back then, I was the kid on the campaign, the presumed softball interview for candidates looking to refine their messaging during the long race for the presidency. By 2004, I had left Channel One and news in general and was “exploring my options” (code word for looking for a job and purpose). Turns out Mr. Gore was in the waning days of his own search for meaning and purpose after his history altering loss for the Presidency. After laying low for years, he was returning to public life with a pretty loud bang, both with his wake up call of a film ‘Inconvenient Truth’ as well as a yet to be unveiled idea for a purpose and viewer driven television network. Mr. Gore (‘call me Al’) told me he was calling about the latter and had an idea that he thought I would be interested. He wanted to meet. Still reeling from the fact that I was speaking with the former vice president of the United States, I said “of course” and would make myself available whenever he wanted to meet.

“What about 30 minutes from now at the Beverly Hilton?” he proposed.

I stammered through an answer and said I’d be there.

Fast forward an hour later and all I really remember about that meeting was Al showing me recordings of myself from Channel One as well as those of some of my former colleagues including Lisa Ling, Serena Altschul, predecessors Anderson Cooper and a few others.

“I want to build a television network inspired by this sort of stuff,” Al proposed to me, now flanked by his partner in crime Joel Hyatt. “It’ll be a cable network for your generation by your generation,” he continued with an enthusiasm and conviction that he was often criticized for not having during his political life and failed presidential bid.

We talked more. Aside from the borrowed Channel One tapes and some others, Al and Joel didn’t have much yet at that stage other than a transformative vision that played on the times, namely the fusion of entertainment, technology, new video delivery systems and a demanding audience that was turning on traditional news programming as well as so-called reality TV. They were self-financing a small exploratory team up in the Bay area, comprised so far of young sharp minded MBA’s from Stanford as well as a veteran operator from the cable and satellite business. The early stages of a business plan were in place but that was about it. They asked me if I’d be interested in joining the fledgling team and said I’d have a prominent voice in the formation of a next gen network that would blend traditional cable and the emerging digital platforms that were exploding up in Northern California. Al was tight with Sergey Brin and Larry Page who had a little thing called Google that was already taking over the world: there was mention of occasional brainstorming sessions with the pair of entrepreneurs that would help develop the vision for the new network that was destined to change the way we created and consumed content.

I didn’t exactly play hard to get. Nor did I tell them that they “had me at hello,” which was the actual case. Instead we collectively decided to be in touch soon to continue the conversation.

Indeed the conversation continued a few months later when Al and Joel flew me out to DC for a meeting they wanted me to join at the Discovery Network. By then the plans for the network had evolved slightly, mostly headlined by Al’s famed dissertation and analogy between the printing press – the world’s first mass media maker, how it had catalyzed the Protestant Reformation and defiance of established status quos in its time – and the current surge of camera technology that would revolutionize video in our time.

Slight rewind: the morning of the Discovery meeting, I had breakfast one on one with Al. My old journalistic instincts kicked in, as well as my curiosity about how anyone could ever recover from the tumult Al had suffered after the 2000 presidential race. Al was remarkably candid about it and shared with me insights he’d had since that historic moment when the Supreme Court ruled in favor of George W. Bush. He told me that while he had certainly endured a very dark period in the aftermath of the election, he’d recently found a passion that was missing from all his years of politics when so much of his time was spent chasing down issues (and money) that were important to potential voters, but not necessarily to him. Now he was indeed passionate about issues important to him – namely the environment, and nexus of technology and media, and was excited to take them both head on. His energy was infectious and I was quickly turning disciple – the only downside being a growing regret over the alternate world that might have been had the Supreme Court ruled the other way.

After breakfast I rode shotgun as Al drove us out to Discovery’s headquarters in Maryland. At one point, we found ourselves stuck in a flash traffic jam, which was unusual at such an early time in the morning. It soon became apparent why – President Bush’s motorcade was passing by. I’ll remember it as one of the more remarkable moments in my life, punctuated by Al’s commentary on it: “well, this sucks.”

The meeting went off great, or so I thought. Aside from Al and Joel, I found myself placed square in the middle of the sell. Disciple had been turned evangelist already. I argued passionately and articulately (at least in my own mind) the case for a new television network that was authentically connected to an audience that demanded truth and transparency in a rapidly transforming media landscape. I was part of a generation that was ambitious and driven, but also demanded meaning and purpose from the media that consumed and created. Our network would embody that principle unlike any before it. A proposed joint venture was on the table between the Discovery monolith and the young start-up (now dubbed INdTV). There seemed to be enthusiasm all around, but ultimately it was a no-go in light of the risk associated with our defiant vision.

To Al and Joel’s credit, Discovery’s reticence to proceed only seemed to fuel theirs. Their vision for the network pushed forward with even more energy. I formalized my role in the start up with a firm handshake, monthly consulting check, and bold excitement that I was a pioneer of change in a (media) world that desperately needed it. We were going to start by changing the television world and then move on to the world at large. There were no more discussions of JV’s: we were going to do it on our own. Al and Joel had identified a flailing cable network they were planning to buy and transform. We just needed to build the plan and recruit the broader team to do it. I say “broader team” because already that’s what we had really become, a collection of passionate believers in a cause bigger than ourselves. I’d dubbed myself employee #6, but the truth is probably somewhere between employee #6 and #8 since over the next few weeks we really started to roll with more momentum. There were numerous brainstorming meetings up at the historic Stanford Park Hotel in Palo Alto as well as Joel’s palatial home in Atherton. These meetings were often dominated by Al and Joel’s mostly aligned vision for the network, but occasional fiery alpha male arguments on display for the rest of us to see. I didn’t really bat an eye after witnessing these battles – nothing great was ever built unanimously after all. Rigorous debate would take us to the promised land, I convinced myself.

I joined Al, Joel, and the team on some of the early investment meetings too. They were with high powered VC’s, private equity shops, former power players and donors to Al’s presidential campaign and the like. Al’s printing press pitch had become even more refined (and lengthy) and largely dominated these meetings. I’d follow up with a little song and dance, fueled by the fact that I was young, a minority, had experience in the field, and a name familiar in high-powered circles like these. Gradually though, as these meetings became less about vision and more about valuations, I transitioned to another arena to pitch our mission of media transformation.

Along with two other early “consultants,” I participated in veritable pep rallies at various schools like USC, NYU and others. We’d ra ra our vision and recruit others to our bigtime cause. It felt more like a mission than media plan at that point. Everyone seemed eager to join and we were collecting resumes and reels at an unprecedented rate. We’d created terms like DC’s (Digital Correspondents) and VC2 (viewer created content) that would comprise the sort of one-man-bands that would shoot, edit, and story-tell broadcast quality content for the channel and would be pioneers in this brave new world of authentic media. The plan was two-pronged, Al and Joel were putting the finishing touches on a large capital raise and acquisition of a network (Canadian based NWI) while we were building the army of predators (Producer/Editors). We wanted to make sure that once the switch was hit, we’d come out of the gates swinging.

Enter reality: just as things started to near the actual formation of Current TV in the spring of 2005, my mind started to wander. It was a combination of things. Maybe I had endured one too many meeting up at the Stanford Park Hotel. Maybe I was suspicious why I’d still not been granted any sort of title or formal role yet, even as the team started to aggressively expand. Maybe I just figured I could do for myself what we had done together. It was about that time that I started building the plan with a friend for what would become Virgin Comics (another story altogether). Whatever the case, my involvement in Current lingered for at least another year, during which time things went from 0 to 60 in almost unprecedented fashion. Suddenly our humble, defiant start up had the best office in the Bay area (on King Street across from Pac Bell Park where the SF Giants played). Suddenly the vision of a rebellious television network driven by its viewers was starting to move back to something more traditional. Suddenly our team of a couple “consultants” had become a team of a couple dozen employees and executives.

The actual genesis of Current TV should probably be written by someone who was actually working there when the network really started to roll in 2005-2006. That rather decidedly wasn’t me. Aside from some promo videos in the very early days, presentations at various cable trade shows, and media interviews on behalf of Current, my involvement was waning. And while inwardly, I was conflicted somewhat over the seeming disconnect between the original vision of the network and its reality upon launch, I continued to have faith in Joel and Al, who I considered (and still do) real mentors, and was also learning the real challenges that come with operational execution of a business. Nothing comes easy in the real world of company building.

Two of Current’s most notable moments in its short lifespan were not exactly the type it aspired toward. First came the capture and detainment of my good friend Laura Ling in North Korea while on assignment for Current’s highly praised but little watched Vanguard News Division. My biased vision of the network was compounded by the guilt I felt over Laura’s situation – I had recruited her hard in the early days of Current. Current’s handling of her circumstance generated quite a bit of controversy and heat, more so probably within the walls of the actual company than in the world at large. When she ultimately returned home, after months of imprisonment in the black box of North Korea, despite the networks increased distribution, various programming partnerships and expansion around the world, Current would seemingly never be the same. Even from afar – I had no more formal engagement with the company (come to think of it, I never had) – it was clear to see that there was a fundamental disconnect between the senior leadership of the company, its now massive staff, and of course the original vision we had plotted so so long ago.

The only other real episode of note in Current’s fragmented history had to do with Keith Olberman’s brief stint on the network, one that ended in hindsight, with rather predictable ugliness and is best read up on Wikipedia or some such other source. In a nutshell though, it epitomized the antithesis of that early vision of Current, a bombastic highly paid industry blowhard sitting behind a desk in a studio far removed from the “real” world, talking to an audience that hardly related to him or his circumstance. Sigh.

But Current’s most notable achievement might actually be its closure. According to various reports, the network sold last week to the Qatary owned Al Jazeera for an estimated $500 million dollars. If at all close to the actual sale number, it’s a rather stunning endpoint for a business that frankly never achieved its lofty goals, and at least in media circles (and Keith Olberman’s many many ranting tweets) flat out failed. In the end, while Current’s founding members, investors, and shareholders (myself sadly not included) saw lucrative exits, Current’s final beat still has to be concluded bittersweet considering the grand vision it all started out with.

Well, except for that. On Saturday night (1/6) one of my former colleagues at Current threw together an impromptu “closure party” at his home in Santa Monica. Several dozen former Current employees from the early days showed up (no small achievement in of itself in LA where lifestyle and geography do not lend easily to anything impromptu). Something crystallized for me while reconnecting with everyone. While the network itself never really managed to meet the high ideals it set out for itself, it certainly managed to recruit countless people that did. Today, many of Current’s first employees fill prominent positions at some of the most progressive media, social media, technology, production, and creative companies in California. They’ve fueled extraordinary innovation in an ecosystem that survives on fresh ideas, creativity, imagination, leadership, and entrepreneurialism. Personally I can attest to Current’s creative legacy in that I’ve collaborated (outside of Current) with wildly talented film-makers, producers, production designers, make up artists, graphic designers, musicians, and editors, all of whom are alumnae of the network. And perhaps there is no better validation of the Current culture than the presence Saturday evening of Laura Ling (whose now more sister than friend) and who despite her ordeal while “on the clock” with Current, harbors no bitterness toward her former company or colleagues, and instead counts amongst them some of her closest friends.

Anyone who knows me (or reads my blogs), knows that I am a big time advocate for progressive policy and activism as it relates to politics, spirituality, foreign affairs and more and an even bigger believer that media is the way to activate it. It’s why Current – and Al and Joel’s original vision for it – so fundamentally appealed to me from the first moment they shared it with me at the Beverly Hilton. I’m an even bigger believer now in the tangled relationship of media and social change than I’ve ever been on account of all the powerful media and social media companies that have clearly achieved it even if we at Current did not.

I’m also one of those people that loves to read and learn from the postscripts of companies after their conclusion because I’m convinced we need media driven by idealism now more than ever considering the hot, flat, shrinking world we live in and its many problems. In the case of television networks, such a postscript would be defined by ratings, revenues, awards, or breakthrough shows. With rare exception, we never really achieved any of the above at Current and the critics will say that we also fell short of our original vision and idealism. I beg to differ. Because in Current’s case, the people that comprised the network certainly did embody that idealism and became agents of change in other corners of the media landscape. That’s a legacy many other media businesses that have come and gone never really accomplish. For that, I’m a proud pioneer of Current TV.

And oh one more thing on that: I never got to sit in on one of those brainstorming meetings with Sergey and Larry and hence never got any life-changing take-aways. But maybe they did. In 2006, they bought a company called YouTube that’s done alright with a similar vision re-imagining video.

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Comments

  1. I am one of those people who was at Current from the early 2005 days. I was hired as employee #52 (or so) and now have the 5th longest tenure at Current (including Al and Joel). Yes, there have been minor and major course corrections over the years. It’s been a heck of a ride. I’ve enjoyed every minute of it and I’m excited for the future, whatever it may hold. I’d love to sit around a kitchen table, living room or bar and tell stories of the early days, the middle days and the later days of Current. So many great things and amazing people have passed through the doors of Current SF, Current LA, Current NY, Current UK, Current Italy and even Current Chicago. Many of those locations went through several iterations.

    Learning from my past, that’s how I stay Current.

  2. First off, Gotham, you’re such an amazing writer and storyteller. Thank you for this insight. As a former TV News Reporter, now founder of GoInspireGo.com, university professor of multimedia communications, blogger for Intent (and HuffPost) and avid watcher and participant of the changing landscape of multi and social media — I too am always interested in how technology and media can change the hearts and minds of viewers — powerful stuff. That’s why I left my career as a TV News Reporter behind to start my nonprofit. My intent: in how we can utilize authentic storytelling, leverage social media to build community and action. Thanks for the insight inside the “tent” of CurrentTV.

    I interviewed with Current TV for a writing position way back when. That’s when I met Laura Ling through one of our common friends. She graciously spoke with me and guided me for 40 minutes over the phone. So when I heard that she was detained in Korea, my heart sank — eventhough I never met her face to face. I helped my university (Academy of Art) get press coverage (from my media contacts) for a “Free Laura Ling event” to keep her story alive, in hopes that the news coverage would pressure the Korean govt to release her. Ling didn’t know me, but treated me like an older sister. I attended the ceremony where her husband, friends, colleagues and strangers talked about the impact Ling had on them. So I viscerally, got the chills when you ended this article with stories about the amazing people Current collected. Despite the downfall of this network, there are many upfalls (my own word haha):

    1. Innovative idea (you are a pioneer)
    2. Met many amazing people
    3. Life lesson on business and your own character
    What a great life lesson indeed. I hope to work with you in some capacity one day Gotham. Whatever you do, I know that you’ll keep that intent to be a part of the change — the changing landscape of this crazy media biz! Toan

  3. Gotham: I see you as a modern day media guru with great insights and good information on how to bring media to the public in a way that serves us well. Keep up the good work.

  4. Does idealism take precedence over moralism, honesty or discretion? Why is there no criticism of Al Gore over who he chose to sell to (big oil money). I’m sorry but actions speak louder than words and Al Gore does show his transparency each time he takes in more money. He never left “chasing down money” it seems, and he’ll create the issues in order to do that. Idealism works best when partnered with wise judgment. I think a more realistic view of Al Gore would be best in this story.