The alliance of Al Gore and the Murdochs to bring Current TV to the UK’s Sky network is one of the more unlikely meeting of minds in the media business.
Al Gore got together with Joel Hyatt, a Democrat politician and lawyer, after the 2000 when he was increasingly concerned about the conservative shift in the press (The Nation).
A year ago they launched Current TV in the United States. It is now available to 30 million cable viewers and has broken even in its first year. The Sky deal announced yesterday will bring it to a further 8 million households in the UK and Ireland, according to the Financial Times.
Current TV broadcasts a series of short items about a third of which are provided amateurs who are paid between $500 and $1,000 per item. There is a website where visitors can vote on which pods, as the short items are called, should be broadcast.
But Current TV is not streamed live on the website. There is a conventional schedule.
The FT has a fascinating transcript of an interview with Al Gore, the former US vice president, Joel Hyatt and James Murdoch of Sky. In it Gore likens what they are doing with the invention of the printing press. He says:
…if you look at the history of media and empowerment of individuals, in the middle ages feudalism was supported by an information monopoly and the printing press democratised the written word in a form that allowed individuals to completely transform the conversation. And the enlightenment came out of that new information ecology and what emerged was the rule of reason and the general expectation that individuals would be able to share knowledge and exchange points of view and then move toward better understandings of what we should do.
Now television 50 years ago began to dampen that conversation. In a way it was a throw back to the medieval monastic scriptorium because individuals received but didnâ€™t participate. And now 50 years later weâ€™ve crossed a threshold with the new digital tools and the ability to use the internet as a means of gaining access to the television medium. And beyond that threshold, and Current TV is the first to cross that threshold, we find now that the ability to have in effect the television equivalent of the small ubiquitous printing press so individuals can participate in the conversation. Sky has become the first media company outside the US to embrace this approach. What it does is empower individuals in the UK ad Ireland to take part in the conversation. The fact that has been profitable for us is yet another validation of the fact that it works.
James Murdoch agrees:
First of all thereâ€™s no question the increase in plurality of the sources of information has been a great boon for citizens, voters, customers etc.
But, what weâ€™re seeing here is the potential with the mass empowerment of producers and story tellers out there, taking a quantum leap.
What weâ€™re going to see over the next decade is something very, very different from what weâ€™ve seen in the past. Weâ€™ve seen a linear increase in choice thatâ€™s been brought about by companies like Sky that are able to invest in the technology to bring more choice to customers, but we when actually start to use this empowering element of mass connectivity and low cost production and thatâ€™s low cost production not because itâ€™s cheap but because the cost of the technology has come down, youâ€™ll see more than just an acceleration, youâ€™ll see an exponential increase in terms of plurality. As weâ€™ve seen with the web in general, this just marries it in an elegant way to the broadcast medium as well.
Having not watched Current TV it is impossible to judge its impact on democracy. But a look at the scedule and some of the pods suggest to me it is TV for the grasshopper mind. Yet there are some good current affairs pods and it is very early days.