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Current TV to shift from video format

After years of trying to establish itself as a channel by-and-for youths, the cable network is canceling three shows and letting go 80 employees as it moves toward more traditional programming.

November 12, 2009|Joe Flint and Meg James

When Al Gore unveiled his youth-oriented cable TV network, he said his ambition was to connect "the Internet generation with television" by creating a channel that would be made up mostly of short-form content supplied by its audience.

After more than four years trying to establish itself as a 21st century channel by and for the people, Current TV announced Wednesday that it was canceling three shows and letting go nearly a quarter of its staff -- 80 employees -- as a part of a shift toward more traditional programming. David Neuman, the programming president, also stepped down.

Current TV's retrenchment shows the difficulty of grafting the freewheeling culture and sensibilities that have thrived over the Internet onto established mediums like television, where viewers often expect slickly produced programs and big-name personalities.

At the same time, just as advertisers have shied from supporting websites that feature amateur video, so too they appear no more willing to support user-generated content on TV.

"As much as you might want to change the world, sometimes there is not that much you can change -- particularly when you are dealing with the world of television," said Brent Poer, managing director of the West Coast offices of MediaVest, an ad-buying firm that represents such clients as AAA and Wal-Mart. "This was a little too radical from the get-go."

The three canceled shows -- "Current Tonight," "Current Takeover" and "Current Exposed" -- were produced in Los Angeles.

Though Current TV is available in just 55 million homes in the U.S., the Gore connection helped it garner publicity that far exceeded viewer interest. The channel achieved its moment in the media sun when two of its reporters, Laura Ling and Euna Lee, were arrested in March by North Korea after crossing the country's border while working on a story on human trafficking. They were released in August after former President Clinton traveled to North Korea to lobby for their freedom.

The cutbacks and shift in direction come three months after the network's privately held parent company, Current Media, recruited media veteran Mark Rosenthal as chief executive. The former president of Viacom's MTV Networks and chief of advertising giant Interpublic Media succeeded entrepreneur Joel Hyatt, who co-founded the company with former Vice President Gore.

In an interview, Rosenthal compared Current TV's move away from videos that usually were less than 10 minutes in length to the growing pains of MTV, when it drifted away from short music videos and toward long-form programs. He said the network would not completely abandon content supplied by viewers, but rather was just "fine-tuning so we don't have an over-reliance on short-form programming."

Part of the problem with Current TV's short-form approach is that it makes it harder to keep viewers tuned in, said officials at channel. Current TV wouldn't provide estimates of the size of its audience, but the channel is believed by industry insiders to attract relatively few viewers.

Instead of generating its programming internally, the channel now will buy shows from outside producers.

"It's about a diversity of ideas," Rosenthal said.

Forrester Research analyst Bobby Tulsiani said Current TV's change in direction underscores how an economic model for amateur programming doesn't exist.

"Maybe the lesson is that there is a value to professionally produced content," Tulsiani said. "It might have been a stretch to think that amateurs could do the same thing that story writers and trained journalists could do. There is a skill involved."

Not all of Current TV's programs are based on user-generated content. It has a news magazine called "Vanguard" that has gotten some acclaim, "The Rotten Tomatoes Show" about the movie industry (and adapted from the website of the same name), and "infoMania," a look at modern media.

Both Rosenthal and Current TV's chief operating officer, Joanna Drake Earl, said the staff cuts and move to courting outside program suppliers had nothing to do with the channel's financial health.

But this is the second time the network has reduced its staff. Last year, it cut 60 positions. Current Media's main backers include Blum Capital Partners, cable giant Comcast Corp., satellite broadcaster DirecTV Inc. and investor Ron Burkle's Yucaipa Cos.

Last year, Current Media's growth plans were dealt a huge blow when it scratched an initial public offering, citing the weak economy. The filing for the $100-million IPO provided a glimpse into the network's financial health. In 2007, the network said it had revenue of about $64 million and losses of $9.9 million.

MediaVest's Poer thinks there's still hope for the channel. "While they might have gone a little too far, they have a good concept," he said. "It may be a good idea to take a pause to try to understand what works and what doesn't work."

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joe.flint@latimes.com

meg.james@latimes.com

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