How Participant's New Network, Pivot, Aims to Avoid Current TV's Fate

Participant Media TV Gamble Illustration - H 2013
Illustration by: Pui Yan Fong

Participant Media TV Gamble Illustration - H 2013

Jeff Skoll is spending hundreds of millions of dollars to ensure his socially conscious Pivot doesn't become "broccoli with bran muffins," president Evan Shapiro says.

This story first appeared in the May 24 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

Can Jeff Skoll do what Al Gore could not?

As the former vice president's cable channel Current -- once hyped as an engine of positive social change -- fades to black after its sale to Al Jazeera, Skoll's Participant Media is preparing for the Aug. 1 launch of Pivot, a channel with a similar mission to entertain and inspire activism.

Will it work? Skoll, the first president of eBay who has invested in 42 socially relevant films including Lincoln and The Help, has committed several hundred million dollars to Pivot. And his strategy differs in many key respects, with the goal being to appeal to the elusive 18-to-34 demographic.

"We're starting with entertainment," says Evan Shapiro, the channel's president, who was recruited from IFC/Sundance. "All due respect to the former vice president … but they started with, 'We're important and you must watch.' That turned a generation of people off." Instead of Current's news and user-generated content -- "broccoli with bran muffins," says Shapiro -- Pivot will offer "entertainment meant to pull you in and then challenge you to do something with the information."

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To do that, Participant has ordered about 300 hours of original programming, including a variety show from Joseph Gordon-Levitt, a scripted, modern-day take on William Shakespeare from The Great Gatsby writer Craig Pearce and a joint venture with Univision to create at least 10 documentaries. That's on top of selected reruns like Friday Night Lights.

Participant CEO Jim Berk won't say how much this will cost, but it's clear Skoll's checkbook is open. "We have a founder, a visionary in Jeff Skoll, who said this is the goal: 'Here is the money you need to do it. Don't worry about the bottom line in the short term. The value will be created in the long term,' " says Berk.

The vision goes beyond targeted programming. Pivot calls its business plan "disruptive" because its ad-supported cable channel will launch in more than 40 million U.S. TV homes at the same time as a Netflix-style streaming video service to attract so-called "cord cutters" -- people who don't buy cable. Some believe that strategy is antithetical to the cable business model, but Shapiro says operators are on board because Pivot will be sold to consumers via broadband divisions as opposed to the TV side. "Once they hear this idea," says Shapiro, "they slam the table and say, 'It's about time.' "

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But so far Time Warner Cable, Comcast and others have not signed up beyond legacy carriage from two channels Participant acquired earlier this year -- Documentary and Halogen. At launch, most Pivot subscribers will be via DirecTV and Dish paid tiers, not basic.

The timing also is an issue, says analyst Todd Juenger, noting that cable operators are bumping off independently owned channels. "There couldn't be a worse time to launch an independent cable channel," he says. "So along comes somebody with no proven track record asking to get paid by cable companies who see programming costs going out of control."

In addition, without brand equity, Pivot will need to heavily spend to generate attention. But Participant execs believe that making small strides with an elusive demo will distinguish the network. "The good thing going for them is that millennials are hard to reach," says Francois Lee, senior vp at MediaVest. "Even if it's a smaller property, if you can reach them, there is possibly a valid reason to give it a try."

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Angela Courtin, chief content officer of Aegis Media Americas, likes what she has heard. "What they are setting out to do could be game-changing," she says. But she cautions: "The millennial consumer is fickle. Will they embrace this? It all comes down to the stories they tell."

Berk says Pivot is the first of several channels Participant plans to offer in the U.S. and worldwide. "So much of TV is based on viewing habits from 10 years ago," he says. "We're trying to build something not just for people watching today but for how much of the next generation is watching television."