NEW YORK – Much of the talk around Al Gore's (search) new Current TV network has been broadly philosophical, like the former vice president's statement that "we want to be the television home page for the Internet generation." With its debut Monday, Current TV will be judged by the same mundane standards as other networks — on whether its programming can hold a viewer's interest.
Gore and his fellow investors envision Current as a sounding board for young people, a step beyond traditional notions of interactivity. They want viewers to contribute much of the network's content now that quality video equipment is widely available.
Based on material previewed on its Web site, Current at first glance seems like a hipper, more irreverent version of traditional television newsmagazines.
Most of its programming will be in "pods," roughly two to seven minutes long, covering topics like jobs, technology, spirituality and current events. An Internet-like on-screen progress bar will show the pod's length.
Its short films include a profile of a hang glider and a piece on working in a fish market. One contributor talked about what it was like to have his phone number on a hacked Internet list of Paris Hilton's (search) cell phone contacts, saying that dealing with curiosity seekers was like "hosting your own radio call-in show."
Every half-hour, Current promises a news update using data from Google on news stories most frequently searched for on the Web.
"We have no illusions about the fact that our product has to be compelling," said David Neuman, Current's programming director. "We also believe it has to be unique. Who wants to watch the seventh clone of a different network?"
Despite suspicions created by his former profession, Gore promises the network won't be advancing a political point of view.
"I think the reality of the network will speak for itself," he told reporters in Los Angeles two weeks ago. "It's not intended to be partisan in any way and not intended to be ideological."
Gore's name may help attract the curious, at least initially.
"People may not have heard of Current TV, but they will have heard that Al Gore has a television station," said J.D. Lasica, co-founder of Ourmedia.org and an expert on digital media.
Gore's team bought the former Newsworld International channel to ensure it has at least some initial distribution. About 20 million homes (out of about 110 million nationally) will get Current TV right away. Success depends on more than doubling that within a couple of years, said analyst Mark Mackenzie of Sanford Bernstein.
To do that, Current must successfully straddle the rapidly changing worlds of television and the Web.
"Current TV is important not for what it is today as for what it heralds tomorrow," Lasica said. "What is important about Current TV is that it's opening up the world a crack to Internet television becoming mainstream."
Current's relationships with cutting-edge content providers haven't been completely smooth.
The initial enthusiasm that Josh Wolf, a 23-year-old filmmaker from San Francisco, felt for Current has cooled. Last year Current said it was going to hire 200 video journalists and give them low-cost equipment. Some 2,000 people applied, but Current abandoned the plan, causing some bad blood, he said.
Neuman said Gore decided the approach wasn't democratic enough; if he truly wanted to open Current up to everyone, it didn't make sense to create an elite 200.
Current is also requiring its filmmakers to sign an agreement giving the network three months' exclusive use of material it has accepted for air. Leaders of the rapidly growing video blogging community have resisted, Wolf said. Those filmmakers most likely to fill Current's stable of independent contributors don't want to be told they can't use their best material on their own Web sites.
The network, which had initially sought six months' exclusivity but softened after the complaints surfaced, is trying to balance satisfying these potential contributors while being able to give viewers something they can't see anywhere else, Neuman said.
"We can't apologize for doing what we need to do to get this business off the ground," he said.
Only about 25 percent of Current's initial material is truly audience-generated; the rest has been done by staff members or solicited from professionals. That's disappointingly small to some people who bought into Current's utopian visions; Neuman said he expects more amateur contributions once the network is established.
Wolf remains interested in what Current is doing. It won't be his television home page, however — just one button he programs on his remote.
"I have this sense that Current is not really looking for content that does not go in line with what their advertisers and investors are interested in seeing," he said. "It's still television that you can zone off to."
Because America Online's widely praised coverage of the Live 8 concerts less than a month ago proved a landmark in the acceptance of Internet television, Current runs one risk it could not have anticipated: potentially becoming obsolete just as it's starting. Unlike television, the Internet allows consumers to hunt specifically for material it wants to see, and skip through it at their leisure, Mackenzie said.
But Lasica said lying on a couch still beats sitting at a desktop.
"Most people still want to watch television in the living room or the family room," he said, "and that's where Current TV has an advantage over any of the Internet startups."
Years of planning, of anticipating what its target audience wants, is now about to be tested on millions of screens. Current is set up to reflect how its operators believe young viewers experience TV, in short bursts with an eye always on what's next.
"We're not relying on what we think is cool or interesting or happening," Neuman said. "We're holding up a mirror to our audience. That, to me, is our insurance policy."