Exploding TV: Where’s the plug?

I’m catching up…. Here are a few posts about exploding TV….

What’s the Currency, Kenneth?

: While I was in San Francisco for Web 2.0, I went “running” early one morning by the headquarters of Current.TV, and it occurred to me how little I’ve heard about the channel. They’re not in the conversation.

Why? Well, if you don’t get Current on your cable — and I don’t; most don’t (they list just DirectTV and some Time Warner digital and Comcast markets) — then you can’t really watch it. You can see some of the segments in its online “studio,” but it’s hard to navigate and you don’t get the sense of the channel itself because you can’t watch that. Why not? I assume it’s because of deals with cable systems, which cofounder Joel Hyatt told me wouldn’t be the case. But apparently they lost.

How much better it would be if they ran the channel on the internet, as if old-time TV were only an afterthought. It would be seen around the world by a much larger audience. Isn’t that the point? And how much better if they put up all the videos they get in an easily browsable format. And why stop there? Why not link to good videos wherever they are; think distributed because that’s the 2.0 way to do things. And keep going: Provide material that we can remix. Let us program not one Current but a thousand Currents and may the best channels win. And let anybody distribute any of it via Bittorrent; it’d save them a fortune and build the brand everywhere. But sell ads and share the wealth to support this new medium. That’s what I thought Current.TV would be.

But it isn’t. They went so media 1.0 and created another TV channel. Only they did it on the cheap by having the people create the little shows. And that’s cute. But it’s hardly revolutionary.

Can’t change the world if nobody’s watching you, if only a few are speaking with you, if you’re not in the conversation.

As I ran by, I stopped and watched the lobster-shift guy at master control in the front window. I could see what was playing then but couldn’t hear (would it have hurt to put a speaker out on the street?). Then again, I didn’t have to hear. They were airing a story about Cindy Sheehan. How perfect. How obvious.

The Dow of ideas

: And so I just reread Al Gore’s speech to the WeMedia confab in New York, which was happening that day, just about the time I was running by his Current.TV. It’s so politics 1.0 of him. Some notes:

He begins with the party line of whoever’s not in power: “I came here today because I believe that American democracy is in grave danger.” It’s not in danger from without — from mad terrorists blowing us up — but from within: Gore doesn’t approve of our marketplace of ideas. He blames politics and us and TV: “The Republic of Letters has been invaded and occupied by television.” You can see where this is leading: Current will save TV and thus America.

But first, he practically dismisses the internet — saying that “it still doesn’t hold a candle to television” — so he can complain again about TV’s impact on the marketplace of ideas.

He says the marketplace of ideas is dead. I say it has never been more alive in my lifetime, thanks directly to the internet. But remember, Gore is not starting his network on the internet. He’s starting it on TV. He’s going to save TV. He says:

But some extremely important elements of American Democracy have been pushed to the sidelines. And the most prominent casualty has been the “marketplace of ideas” that was so beloved and so carefully protected by our Founders. It effectively no longer exists.

He doesn’t say what happened to it, exactly, except that he doesn’t approve of what’s said in it. He waxes nostalgic for a golden age of the marketplace of ideas that I doubt ever existed (until today):

The three most important characteristics of this marketplace of ideas were:

1) It was open to every individual, with no barriers to entry, save the necessity of literacy. This access, it is crucial to add, applied not only to the receipt of information but also to the ability to contribute information directly into the flow of ideas that was available to all; …

But it wasn’t open to all. It was open only to those who owned and controlled the printing presses.

2) The fate of ideas contributed by individuals depended, for the most part, on an emergent Meritocracy of Ideas. Those judged by the market to be good rose to the top, regardless of the wealth or class of the individual responsible for them;

No, once again, the rich owned the presses and the powerful gained office and the rest were not heard.
3) The accepted rules of discourse presumed that the participants were all governed by an unspoken duty to search for general agreement. That is what a “Conversation of Democracy” is all about.
When in the history of democracy has there been consensus? There has always been opposition and debate; that is the very heartbeat of a democracy.

He now contrasts his idealized history with what he thinks the world is like today — though, actually, he describes a world that began to crumble 25 years ago, when the absolute power of three networks was challenged by cable, and died completely a decade ago with the growth of the internet.

Instead of the easy and free access individuals had to participate in the national conversation by means of the printed word, the world of television makes it virtually impossible for individuals to take part in what passes for a national conversation today.

He continues to complain about broadcast and waxes nostalgic, also, about regulation of it… regulation of speech, remember.

One early American student of the medium wrote that if control of radio were concentrated in the hands of a few, “no nation can be free.”

As a result of these fears, safeguards were enacted in the U.S. — including the Public Interest Standard, the Equal Time Provision, and the Fairness Doctrine – though a half century later, in 1987, they were effectively repealed. And then immediately afterwards, Rush Limbaugh and other hate-mongers began to fill the airwaves.

Limbaugh is the product of free speech? OK, I’ll bite. And what’s wrong with that? Is he saying that such speech should be regulated? That government should protect us from such speech or silence it? How is that the free marketplace of ideas?

Next he complains about the business of news:

The news divisions – which used to be seen as serving a public interest and were subsidized by the rest of the network – are now seen as profit centers designed to generate revenue and, more importantly, to advance the larger agenda of the corporation of which they are a small part. They have fewer reporters, fewer stories, smaller budgets, less travel, fewer bureaus, less independent judgment, more vulnerability to influence by management, and more dependence on government sources and canned public relations hand-outs. This tragedy is compounded by the ironic fact that this generation of journalists is the best trained and most highly skilled in the history of their profession. But they are usually not allowed to do the job they have been trained to do.

Ironic, I’d say, from a man who is starting a TV network called Current that does not employ a staff of journalists. Which, by the way, is a fine thing, as far as I’m concerned.

Gore next complains about the state of journalism:

Among the other factors damaging our public discourse in the media, the imposition by management of entertainment values on the journalism profession has resulted in scandals, fabricated sources, fictional events and the tabloidization of mainstream news. As recently stated by Dan Rather – who was, of course, forced out of his anchor job after angering the White House – television news has been “dumbed down and tarted up.”

Well, uh, wasn’t Rather forced out because he engaged in fabricated sources, fictional events, and the tabloidization of mainstream news?

Finally, at the end, Gore returns to the internet.

Indeed, Current TV relies on video streaming over the Internet as the means by which individuals send us what we call viewer-created content or VC squared.

Not to nitpick, but streaming is usually outbound, not inbound. And I find it odd that you still call these people “viewers” if they’re supposedly programming the network. Aren’t they your journalists and programmers? Aren’t you supposed to be the viewer now?

And he still complains about the internet because there’s not enough bandwidth for full-motion video. Try Bittorrent, Al. Try video iChat. Try video on those new iPods.

But in spite of these developments, it is television delivered over cable and satellite that will continue for the remainder of this decade and probably the next to be the dominant medium of communication in America’s democracy. And so long as that is the case, I truly believe that America’s democracy is at grave risk.

I’m sorry, but I don’t buy it.

Listen, Mr. Gore: I voted for you. I thought you won (even if you did lose the lead that should have made victory clear). I agree with you on many, though not all, policies.

But I think you’re blowing it with Current. You said in your speech: “The greatest source of hope for reestablishing a vigorous and accessible marketplace for ideas is the Internet.”

Then why aren’t you — you, of all people — using the internet to its fullest advantage: Open up Current, Mr. Gore. Show everything that is sent to you on the internet. Enable the people to recommend video anywhere. Let us all share and link and distribute and discover it all. Let us edit and remix it. Let us program it. If you mean what you say, then create a true marketplace of ideas, not just another TV channel.

Lighting the fuse

: While I was in San Francisco, I went to Web 2.1, which was held in a studio at KRON TV. There, Terry Heaton and Michael Rosenblum have been revolutionizing local TV news by breaking up reporter/photographer teams and giving everyone a camera and a laptop, putting more eyes and ears on the street.

The bosses at the channel acknowledged readily that much of local TV news sucks. They said they hoped that opening it up would save it. They talked about finding more ways to enable the people to join in — and inviting people into the studio and onto its web site are steps in that direction. We started calling out suggestions — about putting up full video to allow people to remix it, about putting up stories with permalinks to get them into the conversation — and they didn’t fight it; they absorbed the ideas and added them to their to-do lists. They’ve only just begun. They’re still in the midst of training.

Brian, the station’s online guy and blogger, pulled me out into the hall for a quick chat before a big, old camera and I asked the photographer what he really thought of all these changes. He hemmed and hawed and it came out that he doesn’t want people thinking that doing his job is easy, even if new tools make it easier. And he worried that it’s hard to do what was once two jobs at once. But he was open. He said it would be better for the station to have more eyes on the street and more chance for more people to watch more of their stories online.

It’s not easy exploding TV.

BBC 2.0

: I just read Rory O’Connor’s report on the WeMedia confab and loved this contrast of big, old networks:

Sambrook outlined three keys to the BBC’s emergent value proposition:
1) Connecting audiences
2) Verification of news
3) Analysis, explanation and context addition.

The BBC, according to Sambrook, is now “in the middle of reorganizing and reprioritizing itself for a fully-digital, on-demand environment. On-demand is our future.” …

Fundamental change also requires a certain fearlessness, of course and a real willingness to trust the public – both qualities lacking from the current CBS approach. Instead of trusting its audience, CBS evidently fears it and still wants to “filter” and control its contributions to the marketplace of ideas.

Such hidebound thinking is particularly typical of Big Broadcast Media, where the dominant metaphor has long been “Master Control.” But the paradox of social media, its counter-intuitive heart, seems to be that the only way to influence the future is to let go of the illusion of control, and instead to trust the audience and embrace the change. Big Media outfits that already get it – like the BBC – are poised to prosper; those that still don’t – like CBS – better start swimming or they’ll sink like a stone.

After all, trust is the emerging value proposition. And if CBS doesn’t trust the public, why should we trust CBS?

It’s not just about exploding the medium and the wires and the deals. It’s about exploding the relationship.