01 May 2007

Al Gore Gets Current

Written by Published in Issue 3 - Freedom Read 2851 times

Al Gore is arguably most famous for almost becoming president of the United States. Now, with an Oscar under his belt, he is taking his ethical concerns to the mass media. Sublime catches up with him to talk about democratising television.

These are desperate times for those who look for heroes and prophets. If there is such a thing as a hero today it is – to paraphrase Camus – the person who says no. There are precious few of these. Perhaps there’s Ron Ridenhour – the only man who refused to administer fake electric shocks during the infamous Milligram Experiments and went on, as a marine, to report the massacre at My Lai in Vietnam – or Sergeant Samuel Provance, who exposed the torture at Abu Ghraib in the face of direct orders to keep quiet.

As for prophets – well, the nearest thing we’ve got sports no flowing beard or flashing, Old Testament eyes. Instead, he’s a podgy former Vice-President of the United States with a nice little consultancy business. Al Gore is an unlikely seer. His family came from the political class and he was educated at a smart private school in Washington DC. Nonetheless, his 1980s Gore Bill became the 1991 High Performance Computing Act, which effectively created the Internet, and his Oscar-winning film An Inconvenient Truth helped open American eyes to the threat of global warming – a subject he held Congressional hearings on back in the 1970s.

Of course, politicians – even former politicians – love to talk and pass new laws. To be fair to Gore, however, he’s not simply issuing extra hot air to increase the problem. In February, he announced the Virgin Earth Challenge with Richard Branson – a competition offering a $25 million prize for the first person to produce a means to remove atmospheric greenhouse gases from the atmosphere. This summer, he’s behind a series of gigs called the Live Earth Concerts, held in Shanghai, China, Sydney, Australia, Johannesburg, South Africa, London, Brazil, Japan, the US and Antarctica to raise the issue of climate change. When he meets Sublime, however, he wants to talk about television.

In May 2004, Gore – along with his business partner and former Democratic Party fundraiser Joel Hyatt – bought a small cable news channel from Vivendi Universal and relaunched it as Current TV. ‘We came up with the plan after the 2000 election for an independent channel,’ explains Hyatt. ‘Al wanted it to be a not-for-profit station, but I said I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life raising the kind of money we’d put together for his election campaign, so we agreed to run it on traditional satellite and cable models – advertising- and subscription-funded.’

Current TV’s big idea is an almost entirely interactive programme model. Most of the station’s output is short-form, non-fiction programming ‘pods’, like long YouTube clips averaging three to eight minutes. Since its 2005 launch, it’s wormed its way into 39 million US households, and this spring saw the launch of the UK arm of a hoped-for global TV network. The channel is aimed at 18- to 34-year-olds and its purpose is appropriate for a potential prophet – it wants to change the world.

‘The idea is, essentially, to democratise TV,’ Gore explains, his deep, sonorous tones rolling around the slick London office where he made his UK launch announcement. ‘We’ve essentially regressed in our media, losing democratic ground since the launch of television in the 1940s.

We’re basically back in the feudal era.’.....

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