There’s nothing like a presidential election to divide a nation and destroy friendships. For Current TV, it’s helped to coalesce a brand.
The progressive cable news network, which may soon be for sale, has searched for its voice since former U.S. Vice President Al Gore and businessman Joel Hyatt cofounded it in 2005—transitioning from non-partisan user-generated media to documentaries to left-leading commentary. Over the last year, it has transformed with a slew of new, more opinionated talent and programming, infusion of humor, and most recently, a twist on the integration of social media and TV.
"You have to grab hold of an election year, because it’s an opportunity to put yourself forward, dabble, create, and try some things," says Current TV president David Bohrman, who joined the network from CNN last year. With a reach of only 60 million homes, and a viewership that skews 10 to 20 years younger than other cable news outlets, Current is looking to actively engage with its niche, rather than simply deliver information to it. "When it comes to conventions, debates, and election nights, we can’t compete big, which costs millions of dollars. But we can complete smart."
One of Bohrman’s pet playgrounds is the digital arena. (A holdover from his college days as an astronomy/physics major at Stanford, where the late astronaut Sally Ride was his graduate teaching assistant.) He first envisioned a combination chat and viewing experience 10 years ago. As CNN’s senior vice president, he set up an election night "blogger party" in 2006 at a Washington, D.C. bar, where CNN covered prominent political bloggers covering the election. During the 2008 presidential race, he enlisted the Magic Wall (a multi-touch screen display to help audiences visualize election analysis), and set up the YouTube Debates (where users could submit questions to candidates via YouTube), and hologram reporters ("beamed" into the New York studio from Obama victory celebration in Chicago).
At Current, he’s advanced its use of Twitter. In 2008, the network scrolled a live-viewer Twitter feed—a tweet at a time—at the bottom of the TV screen. This year—for its convention, debate, and election coverage—it culled all tweets pertaining to those events and organized them into 50 to 100 categories, such as swing states, hashtags, trending phrases, and mainstream media responses. It then rotated those theme threads onscreen. Audiences could gauge responses from the Twittersphere while listening to the debate and Current commentary. Concurrently, the network website ran an animated graphic of spheres attached to each category that increased or decreased in size based on the activity in each. Users could click on the spheres corresponding to the Twitter feeds they wanted to read.
It was an extremely challenging undertaking—from designing text that could be clearly read on standard-depth TV, to setting up an elaborate configuration of computerized content and obscenity filters, as well as human monitors. "There are no FCC rules for cable, but our distribution agreements demand that we’re not X-rated, and we need to be responsible," says Bohrman. "People are pretty sharp about being able to fool these filters. At the same time, we wanted to interfere as little as possible."
The experiment was hugely successful. For example, according to Trendrr, which tracks social media impact, the second presidential debate garnered more than 550,000 tweets dealing directly with Current’s coverage, placing it fifth in network-specific tweets behind both broadcast and cable news outlets with far greater distribution—CNN, MSNBC, NBC, and FOX News—covering the debate.
"Not only could you hear hosts Jennifer Granholm, Al Gore, Cenk Uygur, and Eliot Spitzer, but you had a much better sense of what the country was thinking at the same time," says Bohrman. "Overall, this may be the right implementation of what two complementary streams should be online and on television. The socialization part of TV is really significant—you can watch it with the world and share feedback with everyone."
Social media not only plays well with the network’s comparatively younger demo—which averages viewers in their 40s and 50s, compared to those in their 60s for other news outlets—but is also becoming a modern approach to retail politics.
"The big transformation with social media is the ability of voters to speak up and be a part of the process," says Bohrman. "In the past, they were inanimate objects at home, blasted to by commercials, rarely heard from except by telegrams sent to their congressmen. Or you’d have to march in the street. But with the opening up of technology and communications, and blogs and Twitter, there’s a much better sense of what people think."
Bohrman presses the point with an incident that happened during the CNN YouTube Debates. A man, via YouTube, asked Obama if he would meet with the leaders for North Korea, Iran, and Venezuela, if elected. "The answer was played throughout the fall campaign and into the first couple of years of the Obama administration. And it came from this guy who submitted it on YouTube," he says. "That was just a toe in the water. The dynamic has changed, and politicians are trying to figure out how to deal with it. I don’t know that they really have."
Eventually, Bohrman hopes to harness Current’s social media community beyond just expression. "We’re trying to figure out the right formula for us to enable what we describe as "a call to action"—whether it’s giving money, time, or support."
The network is also experimenting with a balance of social issues and satire with shows helmed by comedians John Fugelsang, Joy Behar, and Stephanie Miller that feature civic-minded celebrities as guests.
"Washington is so incredibly dysfunctional that most politicians aren’t in on the joke, which is why Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert are so successful," says Bohrman. "They just hold up a mirror to what they see politicians doing. I’m not sure that half of TV is in on the joke. Anchors always try to act very official, and take themselves far too seriously. Satire, not taking yourself seriously, saying, "This is ridiculous," is really refreshing, because you don’t get much of it on the news."
Still too early know know how a sale would effect the network, Bohrman’s next challenge will be programming afternoons. "Our mornings sort of feel like talk radio. Our afternoons may be a traditional type of programming, sort of a "talk TV" style, which is really not that new," he says. "Forty years ago, my father was host of a daily, three-hour political talk show on TV [Tempo on Los Angeles’ KHJ-TV] that grew out of talk radio. He was the screaming liberal on television—peace symbol on the desk, beads, ranting against the Vietnam War and the Nixon administration. He took calls and engaged in political conversation. It’s a programming type that’s largely been forgotten, and that may be where we’re heading in some of the other dayparts."
"Beyond this election year, I think we want to keep some connection to how they’re doing in Washington, what they’re working on, and what their priorities are," adds Bohrman. "The story isn’t always the horserace for who’s going to win an election. The story is the issues, what’s important, how do you get things done. I think there’s room to talk about environment, climate, and science, considering the political divide on these topics. I mean, we still have a Flat-Earth contingent. So that whole arena is open and fertile."
[Political Fists Image: Aquir via Shutterstock]