10.12.10

Current TV Attempts to Reboot

Now five-years-old, Current TV has failed to make a dent. But CEO Mark Rosenthal wants to broaden by doubling-down on investigative programming. He talks exclusively to Peter Lauria.

Early on in War on the Border, a three-part special examining the immigration battle taking place along the U.S.-Mexico border that begins the new season of Current TV’s Vanguard documentary series on November 15, there’s a scene of a meat locker stuffed full with the corpses of 130 migrants who succumbed to the desert elements before they could make it into the U.S. So packed in are the bodies, the Sheriff calmly explains to the camera, that he has to rent a refrigerated truck to take some of them away. A voiceover later adds that for every body found, 10 more go unrecovered.

It’s a border war perspective not found on the big three cable news networks—CNN, Fox, and MSNBC—where coverage of the issue consists primarily of politicians spewing sound bite soliloquies of divisive rhetoric. Why pay attention to human costs when there’s fear and loathing to stir up in viewers over jobs lost to migrants and anchor babies? It’s an election season, after all.

The American Heritage Dictionary defines vanguard as the “foremost part of an advancing army.” And that’s the way Current TV does, too—the upcoming season of Vanguard will inform the aesthetic sensibility of an entirely new slate of programming meant to rebrand the network as it fights to carve out a niche among viewers against larger, more-established competitors.

“The original vision for the network was to readdress video journalism in the 21st century, and Vanguard is the manifestation of the best intentions of that mission,” says CEO Mark Rosenthal. “The other networks are starting to look a lot like each other, and there’s a big opportunity for Current TV to be the place for long-form storytelling.”

Launched just over five years ago, Current TV is best known as the network co-founded by former vice president Al Gore and Joel Hyatt. If it is associated with anything other than Gore’s involvement, it is often still wrongly recognized as a news network populated by user-generated clips submitted by citizen journalists. But Rosenthal, who has been CEO for 13 months after spending most of his career at MTV, knows better than anyone that breaking news is an ephemeral commodity and that short-form video doesn’t generate ratings sustainable enough to build a network, which is why he is doubling down on long-form investigative programming.

While documentaries and news will be the twin pillars of the new strategy, Rosenthal is quick to note that Current TV also plans to announce a slate of scripted and reality shows in the first quarter of next year. Though he declined to comment about particular shows in development, a hint of where the network is headed can be gleaned from last week’s announcement of a new interactive series called Bar Karma that it is developing with The Sims and SimCity videogame designer Will Wright. According to Ocean MacAdams, who was poached by Rosenthal after 12 years at MTV to run programming for Current TV, scripted shows in the vein of The West Wing would fit with the network’s strategy as well. Think of it as meaningful entertainment. The way Rosenthal sees it, Current TV’s new strategy is broad enough for it to steal viewers not just from the cable news networks, but also from channels like Discovery, National Geographic, History, A&E, and other networks with demographics similar to its own.

“The first thing Mark said when he called to tell me he took the job was that he was going to do a complete makeover because the programming model wasn’t working,” says former MTV colleague Tom Freston. “I think he sees the network as an underdeveloped asset that is poised to be souped up and made more relevant and competitive.”

Current TV’s new programming strategy will lean heavily on the spirit of Vanguard, the lone legacy show on the network that’s been able to gain traction, if not among the public at large, then certainly in a subset of political and news influencers. The documentary series most recently won the prestigious 2010 Peabody Award and 2010 Television Academy Honor Award, and has previously been honored with the Livingston, Prism, and Dupont awards for journalism. At a recent event, according to MacAdams, celebrated international correspondent Christiane Amanpour peppered Current TV anchor Mariana van Zeller with questions about how she got the reporting for Peabody-winner, “ The OxyContin Express.” Bill and Melinda Gates’ philanthropic foundation requested copies of Vanguard’s “ World Toilet Crisis” episode to screen for its healthcare partners.

MacAdams says Vanguard provides the “experiential viewing” for its male, 25-34 year old audience that grew up on Spike and Adult Swim and is now trying to figure out the world and their place in it. It does this by offering viewers a deeper level of engagement than the broadcast or cable news networks—instead of featuring political talking heads in a brief one-off segment, Vanguard is devoting three half-hour episodes to the border issue, documenting, among other things, its anchors being led by a “coyote,” or human smuggler, on a illegal border crossing, which has never been shown on TV before.

“Well-reported stories, especially international ones, are at a premium on American television,” says media consultant and former CBS News president Andrew Heyward. “The money available for ambitious, investigative reporting is shrinking.”

Indeed, Vanguard’s production costs range between $300,000 and $500,000 per episode. The network has ordered 16 new episodes for next year, for a total cost of between $4.8 million on the low end and $8 million on the high end.

Rosenthal also signed up with Nielsen to have Current TV’s programming rated beginning in this year’s fourth quarter in part because he’s planning a massive expansion of the network’s advertising department. The network’s revenue is currently weighted more towards licensing fees from cable operators than advertising sales, but Rosenthal thinks the new slate of programming could help bring that to parity. That’s not to say that there isn’t room to grow licensing fees either, however. Current TV is available in approximately 70 million homes through distributors such as Comcast, Time Warner Cable, DirecTV, and Dish. But it is still missing from a handful of prominent cable provides like Cablevision. Given his relationships—Rosenthal came up at MTV in cable affiliate sales—it wouldn’t be surprising to see Current TV finally land carriage with distributors that previously shunned it or garner license fee increases once its existing contracts expire. (A key litmus test will be the renegotiation of its Time Warner Cable contract, which expires at the end of the year.)

Current TV, which has tried to sell itself over the years to no avail, has been criticized for not fully leveraging its relationship to Gore. The former vice president functions mainly as an ambassador, attending dinners with advertisers, industry conventions, and other events for the channel. In Current TV’s five years in existence, he’s only appeared on it a handful of times. Still, some say the breakup of Gore’s 40-year marriage and accusations of inappropriate conduct have hurt Current TV’s prospects.

According to programmer Ocean MacAdams scripted shows in the vein of The West Wing would fit with the network’s strategy as well.

“The only reason people pay attention to Current TV is because of Gore’s name,” says Fordham University media professor Paul Levinson, author of the New New Media. “How loyal are they going to be to him to continue watching the network?”

Of Gore, Rosenthal would say only that, “He’s been a huge supporter of the network. A lot of people associate his name with us, but the channel was never meant to be the ‘Al Gore Channel.’ We need to do a better job of positioning and focusing the brand than we have historically.”

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Peter Lauria is senior correspondent covering business, media, and entertainment for The Daily Beast. He previously covered music, movies, television, cable, radio, and corporate media as a business reporter for The New York Post. His work has also appeared in Avenue, Blender, and Media Magazine, and he's appeared on CNBC, Bloomberg, BBC Radio, and Reuters TV.