How Al Gore Lost Current From the Start (Analysis)

An opportunity lost to start a revolution, but a big paycheck for failure at the end.

In 2005, Al Gore and his business partner Joel Hyatt announced in San Francisco that their new cable channel, Current, was going to be revolutionary. Gore made lots of pronouncements about youth and modern media, and it seemed, if you cut through all the spin, that Current was going to be a cable channel dedicated to something different: It was going to be about social change. As if to hammer home that point, the launch party featured Sean Penn and Leonardo DiCaprio.

The trouble -- as I wrote back then -- was that it was pretty clear Current had no solid identity, nothing that could be put into a declarative sentence.

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One thing, however, was very clear to Gore -- what Current would not be: "We have no intention of being a Democratic channel, a liberal channel or a TV version of Air America," he said. "That's not what we're all about. We are about empowering this generation of young people in the 18-to-34 population to engage in a dialogue of democracy and to tell their stories of what's going on in their lives, in the dominant medium of our time."

Yeah, so much for that. It was a disaster of an idea at exactly the time when Current had a chance to make a mark. Through his impressive array of contacts and his influence, Gore took an obscure cable channel (Newsworld International) of roughly 17 million subscribers and launched it with roughly 40 million (it would eventually get to more than 60 million) because of those contacts. That was the time to strike. Gore and Hyatt reportedly got the channel for somewhere near $70 million, which makes the $500 million selling price to Al Jazeera more eye-opening than the first time it was mentioned.

I was skeptical in 2005 (a verbatim sentence: “Launching a cable channel is nearly impossible, and not even Gore's unquenchable optimism can change that fact”). But it didn’t take Current’s lack of buzz or Gore’s misreading of Current’s mission very long to drive the channel into obscurity, blowing the charitable subscriber base. Lest we forget, Current didn’t even gain a new identity until it hired Keith Olbermann in February 2011.

This is what David Bohrman, president of programming for Current, said when he and Gore sat before us at the Television Critics Association winter press tour in January 2012: “So we are really, really excited about what we’re doing. Bringing Keith Olbermann to Current was the trigger, the transformational spark that showed Joel Hyatt and Al what we needed to be, what we could be, what the audience, conceivably what their appetite was for this kind of programming. So I was brought on board to help build it, and that’s exactly what we’re doing.”

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Except that Olbermann was off the air at that point and not sitting in front of us at TCA -- a rift that has resulted in a breach-of-contract lawsuit of more than $50 million (a suit that got a whole lot more interesting with the Current sale and Gore reportedly set to pocket $100 million).

At last year’s TCA session with Current, I asked Gore if rumors that Current was being shopped for sale were true. His response: “No. It’s not true. And we’re not for sale. We love what we’re doing.”

There were only three problems with that: 1) They didn’t really know what they were doing; 2) By the time they thought they had it figured out, it was too late; 3) Nobody was watching.

When the news of Current’s sale to Al Jazeera broke, there were no Sean Penn or Leonardo DiCaprio sightings. There was no talk of a youth revolution overturning staid media. There was only shock that a channel that never found out what it wanted to be and one almost no one watched was sold for a whopping $500 million.

Tomorrow: Why Al Jazeera has a real opportunity and what the sale means to CNN.