Current TV’s Identity Crisis

By Alex Weprin 

Current TV, the network founded by former Vice President Al Gore and his business partner Joel Hyatt, is preparing for a major format change that will alter the face of the network’s programming.

That is the takeaway from an in-depth feature on the channel by The Hollywood Reporter‘s Andrew Wallenstein.

A big part of the network’s new strategy comes from Brian Graden, the former head of programming for MTV, who the network has brought on as a consultant.

Wallenstein reports that Graden has been tasked with reworking the channel, moving away from the short-form and viewer submitted content, and toward more typical programming found on other cable television networks.

It will also mean less, or at least very different, news and non-fiction programming:

The early word is Current will be nowhere near its former staff size. Rather, it will be restructured less like one massive news bureau and more like a traditional cable channel, with formal departments for development and acquisition.

The channel will likely stock up on documentaries, a safer play than going with all originals. Still, originals will be crucial part of the mix.

Also going forward the channel will likely blur the boundaries between news and reality formats. In addition, part of the mandate at Current going forward is lightening up beyond its more serious-minded fare–and aging up as well, about a decade older than the early-twenties male that was its former target.

Current has had a hard time gaining distribution and striking rich advertising deals since its founding in 2005. The hope is that the new format will lead to higher distribution and ratings. THR also says that the channel will become Nielsen rated in the fourth quarter, a key stepping stone to attracting major advertisers.

For the most part, Current has made news not for its programming, but because of other issues, such as when two of its journalists, Laura Ling and Euna Lee, were imprisoned in North Korea last year, or when the network went through a restructuring.

Wallenstein also suggests that part of Current’s problem was the distance Gore kept from the channel he helped found:

Another trend Current failed to exploit was Gore himself. Even as Gore rocketed to international acclaim for “An Inconvenient Truth,” Current barely leveraged its in-house rock star; Gore didn’t appear on the channel’s air until its third year, and fleetingly thereafter. And yet Gore’s reputation was such that he could have been the basis for the entire channel, not unlike what Discovery Networks is doing with its much anticipated OWN venture with Oprah Winfrey.

Depending on which insider you ask, Gore was either: leery about letting his cable channel bask in his halo in fear of seeming self-serving; too distracted by the production and subsequent success of “Truth” to even have the time to get involved, or Current TV management intentionally kept Gore at arm’s length in fear of turning the channel into Gore TV. The truth is quite possibly a combination of all three.