A Few Questions for Current CEO Joel Hyatt
Current TV, the cable network launched by Al Gore and entrepreneur Joel Hyatt, celebrated its first anniversary this week. While harnessing user-generated content has become a priority for many major media companies of late, it’s been Current’s model since Day 1; the network shows short films on everything from the Congo election to soldiers rapping in Iraq to the Afghani sport of "buzkashi", often produced by young viewers with little or no budget. Current now reaches 30 million homes.
Current CEO Hyatt spoke with B&C’s Gordie Steiner about the year past, and the year ahead.
What were your objectives for the first year?
We wanted to launch a TV network and validate a concept which no one believed had any merit, which was to empower a young adult audience to participate in what they watch. A year later we have far surpassed our modest goals. We are further along than we had ever dreamed we would be within one year and have been copied by virtually every media company in the world right now, which is very encouraging. We started with 17 million households and are now at about 30 million, which we will pass once Comcast and Time Warner complete their absorption of Adelphia.
What has surprised you thus far?
How quickly our concept has caught on. At this point we hoped for about 10-15% of our content to be viewer created and we are over 30% today. Perhaps our most important metric is that we’re much further along with the role our audience and viewers are playing in the creation of the network.
Do you feel Current is seen as a liberally driven network, or even a political vehicle for Al Gore?
I think that was a concern people had when we first launched, and no matter how many times we said the network wasn’t about politics, it wasn’t about Al Gore, people sort of took a “we’ll believe it when we see it” approach. It was a matter of days and certainly no more than weeks after we launched when people said “This is totally different than what we expected and what we saw coming.” When we explained the basic concept of trying viewer-created content, people just laughed at us, and now there is literally not a week and sometimes not a day where something doesn’t cross my desk about some major media company copying one of our innovations.
Launching a network isn’t cheap. Has Current seen a profit yet?
It is a lot to launch a network but again that’s one of the metrics I can refer to where we are doing far better than we planned and far better than historic track records of new cable networks. So we are in great shape financially. We’ve never disclosed if we’ve made a profit, so I’m reluctant to start now. Once you start, there’s no stopping.
What are your plans to expand?
We hope to grow from 30 million households to 40 million in the next twelve months; we are going to be launching a major broadband initiative–an online offering that is going to set the standard for premiere video online. We are going to expand internationally and hope that by the end of ’07, we enter a couple of major international markets. Other plans include expanding into other platforms such as wireless.
How has the network been able to connect with its young demographic so well? Is it the viewer-created content?
Yeah, I just think it’s so new and different and so independent and there is a range, a breadth, and a depth of content that you really can’t find anywhere else. You just can’t find the authenticity that comes from having real people sharing real stories with their generation. That just doesn’t exist anywhere else. We’ve done absolutely no consumer marketing; we will begin that in ’07. The only form we’ve done is public relations.
What’s the next chapter in user-generated content?
I think it’s what we’re pioneering–the intersection of the various platforms, which we are way ahead of because in addition to the internet, we have a soon to be international cable and satellite television network. We see ourselves as a high-quality provider of viewer-created content because again, we can distribute content globally over all platforms, which is just a huge advantage with young people.
What is it you’re looking for in content?
David Neuman, our president of programming, put it this way when a young person asked, “You mean I could submit my video to Current, and it would end up on television?” David said, “Yes. If it’s absolutely fantastic.” Anybody can submit anything, and it will go into our online studios where a community can watch it. But only really good stuff gets on TV.