Al Gore is a bit like marmite: you either love him or hate him. He nearly became President, won an oscar for 'An Inconvenient Truth' and was behind the recent Live Earth event. One thing not focused on nearly enough in the media is his new initiative to democratise media: Current TV. Stephen Armstrong at Sublime magazine recently interviewed Al Gore about his current activities and Sublime have kindly allowed us to reproduce the article. Enjoy.
Al Gore is arguably most famous for almost becoming President of the United States.
Now, with an Oscar under his belt, he is taking his ethical concerns to the mass media. Sublime catches up with to talk about democratising television.
These are desperate times for those who look for heroes and prophets. If there is such a thing as a hero today it is – to paraphrase Camus – the person who says no. There are precious few of these. Perhaps there’s Ron Ridenhour – the only man who refused to administer fake electric shocks during the infamous Milligram Experiments and went on, as a marine, to report the massacre at My Lai in Vietnam – or Sergeant Samuel Provance, who exposed the torture at Abu Ghraib in the face of direct orders to keep quiet.
As for prophets – well, the nearest thing we’ve got sports no flowing beard or flashing, Old Testament eyes. Instead, he’s a podgy former Vice-President of the United States with a nice little consultancy business. Al Gore is an unlikely seer. His family came from the political class and he was educated at a smart private school in Washington DC. Nonetheless, his 1980s Gore Bill became the 1991 High Performance Computing Act, which effectively created the Internet, and his Oscar-winning film An Inconvenient Truth helped open American eyes to the threat of global warming – a subject he held Congressional hearings on back in the 1970s.
Of course, politicians – even former politicians – love to talk and pass new laws. To be fair to Gore, however, he’s not simply issuing extra hot air to increase the problem. In February, he announced the Virgin Earth Challenge with Richard Branson – a competition offering a $25 million prize for the first person to produce a means to remove atmospheric greenhouse gases from the atmosphere. This summer, he’s behind a series of gigs called the Live Earth Concerts, held in Shanghai, China, Sydney, Australia, Johannesburg, South Africa, London, Brazil, Japan, the US and Antarctica to raise the issue of climate change. When he meets Sublime, however, he wants to talk about television.
In May 2004, Gore – along with his business partner and former Democratic Party fundraiser Joel Hyatt – bought a small cable news channel from Vivendi Universal and relaunched it as Current TV. ‘We came up with the plan after the 2000 election for an independent channel,’ explains Hyatt. ‘Al wanted it to be a not-for-profit station, but I said I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life raising the kind of money we’d put together for his election campaign, so we agreed to run it on traditional satellite and cable models – advertising- and subscription-funded.’
Current TV’s big idea is an almost entirely interactive programme model. Most of the station’s output is short-form, non-fiction programming ‘pods’, like long YouTube clips averaging three to eight minutes. Since its 2005 launch, it’s wormed its way into 39 million US households, and this spring saw the launch of the UK arm of a hoped-for global TV network. The channel is aimed at 18- to 34-year-olds and its purpose is appropriate for a potential prophet – it wants to change the world.
‘The idea is, essentially, to democratise TV,’ Gore explains, his deep, sonorous tones rolling around the slick London office where he made his UK launch announcement. ‘We’ve essentially regressed in our media, losing democratic ground since the launch of television in the 1940s. We’re basically back in the feudal era.’
Noticing Sublime’s double-take, he expands his argument. ‘Under the feudal system, wealth and power were intimately intertwined, and knowledge played no mediating role whatsoever,’ he explains. ‘The great mass of the people were ignorant and they were powerless because of that. If you wanted to be a writer you had to become a monk and then you’d copy a dead man’s book in a dead language. The printing press changed that. It could run off essays, pamphlets, books or flyers very cheaply and that led directly to the Enlightenment and the rule of reason. Then, 40 years ago, TV re-feudalised the world. Television stations and networks are almost completely inaccessible to individual citizens and almost always uninterested in their ideas. You want to work in TV because you have something to say and it’s like entering a scriptorium in a monastery. You have to learn the way it’s done and rise up through the ranks until, years later, you’re pitching an entertainment idea to advertisers. Ironically, television programming is more accessible to more people than any source of information in history. But it is accessible in only one direction; there is no conversation.’
Hence Current TV’s interactive pods. Gore hopes these will grow as the channel expands until kids from across the planet are literally making their own news and entertainment. Anyone can submit a report or a comedy skit via the station’s website. Viewers then vote for the pods they want to see and so put the station’s schedule together themselves. Current TV, Gore is keen to underline, screens all submissions for dubious, racist, offensive or illegal material then puts all other eligible pods into the mix.
‘People have asked if this is me taking on the right-wing news media,’ Gore says. And how does this sit with making the movie and the climate-change slide show? Well, all of these things connect into the same philosophy – to build a sustainable, better and more liveable world. Democracy is crucial to that, and I don’t believe democracy is furthered by television in its current form. I think democracy is in need of revitalisation. But I’m not setting up a counter-attack on any channel. This is not a political station. It’s an independent voice. As for me, I add value where I can,’ he laughs deep and slow. ‘I’m involved in almost everything. I sell advertising, work on distribution and help with programming. I’ll wash the dishes if that’s needed.’
So how does that compare with the White House? There’s a pause. ‘There is no position in the world that approaches the Presidency of the USA in terms of your ability to influence events,’ he says. ‘Yes, I wish I’d been President. Walking into the Oval Office versus holding an Oscar?’ He pauses. ‘Hmm, I just self-censored an answer that would have made news. Walking into the Oval Office can become routine, but I don’t think walking into it as President would ever prove routine.’
Of course, the word in Washington is that he may yet run in 2008. Film director James Cameron recently begged him to, while the liberal Daily Kos website polled Democrat voters and found he had the backing of 68% of them. ‘No, I am not planning to run for President,’ he says, firmly. ‘I may become involved in politics at a different level, and I will always be campaigning to combat climate change, but I have no plans to run.’
Perhaps he’s having too much fun with pot shots from the trenches to want to take command again. In 2004 he demanded the resignations of Donald Rumsfeld, Condoleezza Rice and Paul Wolfowitz in a high-profile speech about Abu Ghraib. In September 2005, he chartered two aircraft to evacuate 270 evacuees from New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. He’s won an Oscar. Melissa Etheridge and will.i.am run their new songs past him. For most of the planet, even one of those things would be pretty darn cool. So being a full-time prophet can wait. www.current.com
This article was written by Stephen Armstrong and is reproduced with the kind permission of Sublime magazine and is © Sublime magazine 2007