Register Wednesday | June 19 | 2019

Al Gore and the TV Renaissance

Unlikely bedfellows cozy up to the future

I'll be honest with you-I've always had a boner for Al Gore. While others pictured a stiff, unlikable snoot, I saw an idealistic (if socially awkward) geek. Even while I'm rooting for him though, I'm constantly worried that he's going to make a fool of himself. When Al announced last year that he and some investors (including West Wing-er Bradley Whitford) were launching Current (www.current.tv), a new television concept targeted to younger viewers, I was a little skeptical. Al definitely strikes me as the kind of guy who, if asked how to market the project to teens, would come up with something like, "My name is Al Gore and I'm here to say, / Current is dope in a major way."

The concept of Current is actually pretty cool: it attempts to bring the Internet-ish idea of user-generated material to the big box. The lineup features mini-documentaries about the kind of stuff that the kids are into and in some cases this content is created by the kids themselves. The idea is that Current is sort of a vlog, only it's on TV and its goal is to allow citizen journalists to present stories and ideas that were (or would be) passed over by regular media.

The concept leaves a lot of room for missteps, I think-they've already had some filmmakers drop out because of restrictive rules about reposting submitted material to personal sites. But thus far, Current seems to have its heart in the right place. The August 1 launch date has come and gone and so far things appear to be going well.

Whether or not Current sets into motion a democratic television revolution (and frankly my money's on "not"), its existence is symptomatic of a broader phenomenon: people are changing the way they think about their TVs. New technologies, combined with an increased willingness to learn how to use them, are blurring the lines between Internet and television in ways never dreamed of by those poor gits at WebTV. There are Digital Video Recorders (DVRs), of course, but even more exciting are things like BitTorrent.

File-sharing with BitTorrent, augmented by speedier Internet connections, has finally made it feasible for people to download and view near-current TV shows in place of watching them via broadcast. Instead of waiting forever to download one dinky episode of The Simpsons from a conventional file-sharing site, torrent files let you get those suckers fast enough to make it actually worth the effort. They work by allowing anyone who is downloading a file to simultaneously offer the parts they've already received to anyone interested in the same thing-basically, the more people you've got trying to download something, the faster the system gets. Since it's relatively easy (once you get the hang of it) to digitize and share shows, episodes crop up on the Interweb almost immediately after they've aired. It's like a less-creepy digital version of those guys who used to tape every single episode of a show on their VCR and then let you borrow the episodes you missed, under the caveat that if you lost the tape you were totally dead.

One has to imagine that the rise in popularity of BitTorrent and vlogs was instrumental in PBS's decision to launch NerdTV this September. NerdTV will be the first major network series available exclusively on the Internet. That's right, suckaz-it ain't available on conventional telly. The series will feature ... well, nerds. Picture the co-founder of PayPal and the father of Berkley UNIX chatting about Gilmore Girls or frittata recipes or some such thing. And because PBS-ers are such cutting-edge folk, NerdTV's programming will be released under a Creative Commons license, ready to be legally remixed and shared by some bored farker. Viewers (users? viewsers?) will be able to choose which bits of the show they want to watch, in which order, and in what format. This is the kind of kick-ass revolution that Al Gore was looking to set in motion, and it's pretty awesome that PBS got there first.

The idea of video as interchangeable chunks of content is one shared by both Current and NerdTV. Both plan to offer their programming in nibble-sized video "pods" that viewers are encouraged to mix and shuffle, instead of structuring it into more traditional hour-long episodes that must be viewed in order. The adoption of the video-image-as-information concept isn't limited to these two entities, either. Both Google and Yahoo! have recently launched video searches and, hot on their heels, Lexis-Nexis is launching an à la carte television search. Suddenly, digital video information is as slice-and-diceable as digital print.

As the concept of manipulatable, searchable video is increasingly injected into the mainstream-and c'mon, if Lexis-Nexis and Al Gore don't constitute the mainstream, I don't know what does-the idea of "broadcast" television begins to make less and less sense. It is becoming increasingly clear that people can and will watch pre-recorded shows when and how they please, and it seems to me now that the only shows worth broadcasting in the traditional way are live events. Think about the times your family and friends have huddled excitedly around the television: shuttle launches, Oscar ceremonies, playoff games, crisis-steeped addresses to the nation. These are things that benefit from having slick producers and announcers and tons of camera angles, but they would make very shitty webcasts.

As the Internet and the television commingle, both are finding exciting new ways to bring information and entertainment to the people and clearly, this is exactly what the people need: more reasons to spend their hours in front of their TVs and/or computers. It's the future, my friends, and it is glorious.

Audrey Ference is a writer living in Brooklyn with a cat and a TV, among other things. She kind of doesn't get what the big deal is about The OC. No offence.