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Good News in TV Land

Two upstart cable channels are offering an alternative to television's mindless barrage
by Maura R. O'Connor

The most amazing thing about Current TV, the new cable channel featuring documentaries made by young people for young people, is not that it was founded by former Vice President Al Gore but that it's actually really good. At just one year of age, Current hasn't quite yet achieved its goal to “take back TV” from corporate conglomerates, but it has succeeded in airing smart, sophisticated, and absorbing documentaries and enabling, for the first time ever, an ongoing creative collaboration between the people sitting in front of the boob tube and the people working behind it. Current's target demographic is people between the ages of eighteen and thirty-four, and the way the station works is that anyone can submit a documentary from thirty seconds to eight minutes long (called a “pod”) about whatever subject they choose. Meanwhile, their peers log on to and vote for the videos they want to see aired on television. In this way, over thirty percent of Current TV's content is “viewer controlled.” The rest of its pods are produced in-house; for example, Current Soul, featuring Gotham Chopra's (son of bestselling spiritual author Deepak) journeys into contemporary spirituality.

Gore, who is also on the board of Apple and a consultant for Google, believes that just as the internet has connected young people and enabled them to articulate their perspectives like never before, through platforms such as blogs and countless websites, so can television. As one early supporter put it, “If people, young people in particular, can experience news gathering and news storytelling as a participatory act, they would come to understand that interpreting the world around them is a collective proposition.” Although Current has been somewhat justifiably criticized in the past year for focusing too much on its image and looking like a kind of “MTV for documentaries,” the station seems to be proving popular: it airs in twenty-eight million homes each day. And to Current TV's and its viewers' credit, the documentaries are consistently compelling and cover an incredible number of facets of young people's lives—anything and everything from fashion, relationships, travel, and politics to the environment, music, AIDS, parenting, war, and world history.

Current isn't the only cable television station airing programs and documentaries that try to bring global news and information into American living rooms. Link TV, whose slogan is “Your connection to the world,” has been around for five years and is currently available in over twenty million American households. Though not specifically designed for the younger crowd, its goal is much the same as Current's: to bypass the limitations of the corporate mass media and use television as a vehicle for connecting people to some of the most important global issues of the day. It provides information about nonprofit volunteer programs around the world and has partnerships with organizations like Chat the Planet, which connects young people from Africa to Alabama via videoconferencing to engage in dialogue with each other about their lives and politics. Unlike Current TV, Link TV has zero commercials and forgoes the sound-bite-length documentaries in favor of news shows and independent films that are often several hours long. Many, if not the majority, are extremely well made and emotionally impacting. For example, a recent documentary on reconciliation efforts between individuals of opposing political parties on the island of Papua New Guinea after a ten-year civil war repeatedly brought this viewer to tears.

Granted, most of Link's programs are so sincere and straightforward in content and appearance that it's hard to imagine very many “too-cool-for-school” youths tuning in, but its presence on cable television among so many channels of senseless entertainment ensures there's a better option for them out there. Not only that, Link's presence in tandem with Current TV may signal a new chapter in television history—one that, as Al Gore is hoping, will emulate the world wide web in giving the power of the media to the people.


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This article is from
Our Ken Wilber Issue


June–August 2006