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Current TV invites its viewers to watch and create

The Associated Press, Monday, December 13, 2010, 3:04am (PST)

NEW YORK (AP) -- Do you remember Current TV?

Current was launched in summer 2005 as a young adult cable channel enlisting viewer-created video "pods" five to nine minutes long that explored the things on which its audience was (literally) focused. It was innovative, even revolutionary television, clip after user-generated clip.

Maybe it was ahead of its time.

Five years later, Current is reinventing itself, especially in the wake of online rivals such as YouTube, which, soon after Current signed on, became the go-to source for user-generated content of every description.

Today, Current no longer aspires to be "the television home page of the Internet generation," as it once billed itself. Instead, it aims to offer viewers appointment TV with distinctive longer-format fare.

"Short-form TV content traditionally doesn't command long-term viewership," says Current CEO Mark Rosenthal. "But telling stories in ways they haven't been told before is what we're still doing."

Current already has distinguished itself with "Vanguard," its investigative documentary series that dispatches correspondents including Adam Yamaguchi and Mariana van Zeller for in-depth explorations of such subjects as illegal immigration and drug trade. In 2009, it won a Peabody Award for its expose of Oxycodone trafficking by Florida "pain clinics."

Now, Current is announcing "4th and Forever," a powerful documentary series about the 2010 football season of Long Beach (Calif.) Polytechnic High School, which has sent more players to the NFL than any other high school in the country. In its nine episodes, it will track the do-or-die challenges of young athletes on the gridiron as well as the mean streets of the 'hood they hope to escape.

"Urban poverty, gangs, education — we can address these issues through an exciting television show," says Ocean MacAdams, Current TV's programming boss. "4th and Forever" premieres April 3.

Though originally committed to unscripted programming, Current will also be introducing a very fictional show, one that gives a wildly inventive twist to the network's viewer-participation legacy. Titled "Bar Karma," this half-hour series has been described as a blend of "Twilight Zone," "Twin Peaks" and "Cheers," with maybe a little "Lost" thrown in.

The setting is described by the network as "a mystical watering hole that travels through time and space," with its proprietors (played by cast members Matthew Humphreys, Cassie Howarth and William Sanderson as its 20,000-year-old bartender) poised to greet each lost soul who happens in the door.

The series was the brainchild of Will Wright, the video-game pioneer who created Spore and the best-selling Sims franchise. But Wright didn't hatch the "Bar Karma" concept. His inspiration was to rally an online community, which contributed series ideas, debated them and voted on the best. The world of "Bar Karma," including the mythical backstory that will fuel its narrative, was hashed out through lively give-and-take among a thousand-member beta community convened earlier this year.

Now, with Current's online Creation Studios open to the public, anyone is welcome to sign up and participate in creating any aspect of a "Bar Karma" episode: characters, story line, promotion, even the pictures that hang on the saloon walls. Then, once each episode meets with the community's approval, it goes before the cameras with a production crew and actors deployed to turn the community's collective vision into TV.

Says Wright, "This is a way to take millions of people who want to be involved in the creative process and let them be involved, and then take that involvement and translate it back into making the experience more interesting for everybody — even the people who choose not to be involved."

It's a process Albie Hecht calls "user-generated meets Hollywood."

Hecht, a TV veteran who was formerly the entertainment president at Nickelodeon, works in partnership with Wright and sees his role as "a development executive for the community as the community develops the show."

A bold venture into crowdsourcing, "this could really change the nature of TV," says Hecht. "This gives the audience an entry point into making TV content that they haven't had before, and yet teams them with experienced production collaborators."

"Bar Karma" is set to premiere Feb. 11, and, even sight unseen, it strongly signals that Current has some new tricks up its sleeve.

Today Current is available in 74 million homes around the world, with 60 million in the U.S. — three times the number when founded by Al Gore and Joel Hyatt, who remain as chairman and vice chairman, respectively.

As the network ramps up its rebranding effort during 2011, more new series will be announced, as well as its program acquisitions. (These include the basic-cable premiere of "This American Life," the TV version of the Ira Glass-hosted public radio series, which debuts Jan. 10, and the British series "Kill It, Cook It, Eat It," which follows the daunting journey by farm animals from pasture to plate, and premieres on Current on Jan. 11.)

"We want to tell stories in different ways than other people are telling stories on television," says Rosenthal. "The guilty-pleasure reality shows live over there, and the testosterone-fueled truck driver and pawnbroker shows live somewhere else."

"I think that leaves a big gap in the marketplace," he says. "We'd like to fill that."

And everyone is invited to help.

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Current TV is owned by Current Media.

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Online:

http://www.current.com

Participate in creating "Bar Karma": http://current.com/studios

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EDITOR'S NOTE — Frazier Moore is a national television columnist for The Associated Press. He can be reached at fmoore(at)ap.org.

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