Current TV, the year-old user-programmed and youth-targeting cable network, is chiefly associated with Al Gore. Indeed, the former U.S. vice president and failed presidential candidate co-founded its parent company, Current Media, and serves as its chair. But while Gore is Current’s more public face, the company’s driving force is its CEO, legal-services trailblazer Joel Hyatt.
A one-time Senate candidate and self-described “old-fashioned entrepreneur,” Hyatt has drawn upon his legal, business and political background to launch and grow Current at a time when starting a cable network—and finding operators with the bandwidth to carry it—is nearly impossible.
Not bad for a guy whose TV experience was largely limited to appearing in ads for his legal companies, in which he delivered the tagline: “I’m Joel Hyatt, and you have my word on it.”
“I love the process of taking an idea and turning it into a reality and building a big business with it,” he says. “I find it intellectually challenging and exhilarating.”
BUILDING UP A COMPANY
A graduate of Dartmouth and Yale Law, Hyatt started Hyatt Legal Services in his hometown of Cleveland with his wife and a former classmate in 1977. By the mid 1980s, he had built the storefront legal clinic into a national franchise offering low-cost, flat-fee services in nearly 200 offices across the country.
Hyatt went on to establish Hyatt Legal Plans in 1990, which offered flat-rate services via employee benefits packages.
When his father-in-law, Sen. Howard Metzenbaum (D-Ohio), retired in 1994, Hyatt ran for his seat but lost to former Lieutenant Governor Mike DeWine.
After selling Hyatt Legal Plans to MetLife in 1997, Hyatt moved to California and taught at Stanford University’s business school. He also served as the Democratic Party’s finance chair during Gore’s 2000 presidential campaign. It was shortly after Gore conceded to George W. Bush that he and Hyatt began drawing the blueprint for Current TV over several years of meetings.
In 2004, Gore and Hyatt bought the Newsworld International channel for $70 million and used its 17 million homes to give them a toehold for their new channel. Current launched in August 2005 with a mission of democratizing media for young people and giving them a voice to program television for each other through viewer-contributed content, or VC2, as the network calls it.
“What we have set out to become,” says Hyatt, “is the television homepage of the Internet generation.”
“NOT YET A PHENOMENON”
In little more than a year, the network has nearly doubled its distribution to 30 million homes. The channel also doubled, to $500, what it pays for first-time viewer contributions, brought on new national advertisers, paired with Yahoo! on a Web channel, and gained carriage in Britain and Ireland. Hyatt hopes Current will reach 40 million homes next year and is planning an online extension to rival user-generated video sites like YouTube.
Unlike YouTube, however, Current owns its content, says Hyatt—and it actually makes money. (The private company does not release financial information.)
“Current is today a real business, but we’re not yet a phenomenon,” Hyatt says. “YouTube is a phenomenon, but it is not yet a real business.”
Current TV Programming President David Neuman says Hyatt’s determination can be summed up by a plaque he keeps on his desk. Quoting the Carthaginian general Hannibal, it reads, “We will either find a way or we will make one.”
“Tell [Joel] that something can’t be done, and his eyes start to sparkle,” Neuman says. “You can just see the wheels turning in his head, figuring out how to do it.”