Al Gore's TV Power Play


The former Vice-President is matching the popularity of his movie with the success of an interactive TV news channel and Web site

What's your favorite image of Al Gore? Maybe it's Gore standing ramrod straight at a presidential debate, or lecturing about global warming in the documentary An Inconvenient Truth? Mine run along those lines. But on Sept. 17, it was a totally different Al Gore who greeted me at the Four Seasons Hotel. Clad in a black suit and black silk shirt, Gore was pounding on his laptop computer in the same room where he had exchanged Hollywood happy-talk the night before with Sean Penn and other entertainment power-players.

Like it or not, we have entered the era where the former Vice-President (whose Presidential campaign failed in the most public of ways) suddenly has become the unlikeliest of Hollywood's power elite. Gore can't greenlight a film or order up a second season for some lamebrained sitcom, but the former Veep has scored one of those rare Hollywood accomplishments, winning two awards in the same year, in two different media. In February, his eco-documentary An Inconvenient Truth won an academy award and on Sept. 16 he won a special Emmy for interactive TV for Current TV, the two-year-old user-generated news channel he started with partner (and heavyweight Democratic fund-raiser) Joel Hyatt.

Gore is trying awfully hard to aw-shucks the entire matter. "I'm old enough to know that the red carpet is just a rug," he says. But he did seem to take special pride in handling the golden statuette during our interview. And it's hard to ignore the fact that Gore, who was derided by pundits for supposedly taking credit for the Internet, seems now to be tapped into the American zeitgeist.

Another Gore Invention

An Inconvenient Truth came along as green consciousness was rippling through the country. Now user-generated content is suddenly so hot that every network worth its call letters is trying to find a way to cash in. (On Sept. 23, the CW network will premiere Online Nation, a half-hour show where Web viewers can see their uploaded videos.)

"When I took a job in the White House in January 1993, there were 49 sites on the Web," says Gore, no doubt engaging in a little bit of Hollywood hyperbole (apparently he learns quickly). "Now there are billions. And when we launched Current TV most people said it would fail, that you couldn't build a TV channel on consumer-generated content. Now everyone is doing it." The point is obvious: Gore is onto something. Better yet, his partner Hyatt, who made a fortune selling low-cost legal services, is clearly relishing the fact that he can make big bucks off of one of the more recent Al Gore "inventions." Jokes Hyatt, "I tell him I want two visionary things a year from now on."

All laughs aside, you have to wonder if maybe Hyatt and Gore have something here. Hyatt says that Current TV is profitable and has been for nearly a year. It can't be making much money, mind you: it's only seen in 40 million U.S. households (it's mostly on satellite services and has few cable systems taking it). The company's PR folks can't give me a reliable number on how many people log onto the Web site.

Pushing Participatory Journalism

But give Current TV credit for making the most of posting user-generated five-minute videos on topics as diverse as a Main Street parade and fires in Paraguay. Those don't cost much, and even if their ads have a consumer-generated flavor, companies such as Sony (SNE), Toyota (TM) and L'Oréal run ads that were suggested to them by videos from the network's viewers.

Current TV may not seem like CNN to you or me. But to Al Gore, who has made it a post-Presidential-campaign mission to turn the media back to the people, it's important that the network is getting notice. Gore, he reminds me, was a reporter for seven years at his family-owned newspaper. He knows this stuff. And Gore says he intends to delve deeper into participatory journalism on Oct. 15, when Current will launch a new, improved Web site that he says will change the way folks use the Net. How so? Gore and Hyatt aren't saying. Instead, Gore is headed out soon to Burbank, Calif., where he's scheduled to appear on the Tonight Show with Jay Leno.

Is he finally going to announce he's in the race, I ask the politician, who joked on stage with Leonardo DiCaprio during the February Oscar telecast that he was using that televised event to announce his candidacy. "Well, I am intending to make an announcement," he says, dragging out each syllable for effect. Then, he smiles, jumps up from his seat, and offers a firm handshake that looks less like a candidate on the make than a Hollywood power player looking for his next big project.

Grover is Los Angeles bureau manager for BusinessWeek.

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