Current Affair

Here’s a simple fact: It’s tough to be both earnest and cool. Consider Rock the Vote, an organization designed to get young people interested in voting and political issues, which uses cool graphics, hip, multiracial youth, and slang like “Social Security: Don’t Get Played!” Don’t get played yourself, though: As a charter member of Rock the Vote’s target demo myself, I can assure you that Rock the Vote ain’t cool. All the bells and whistles can’t obscure the fact that, deep down, the organization is about getting people to exercise their civic duty, and, while they’re at it, pay attention to a bunch of rich, old white men. America would be a better place if such things were cool. But they aren’t, and the flashiest of graphics will never change that.

Which brings us to Current, Al Gore’s new cable news-ish channel, which debuted yesterday. Current, which targets the 18-to-34 year old demographic, occupies the same space in the complicated calculus of cool as Rock the Vote, and it’s fighting the same uphill battle. Consider one of the features from yesterday, an uplifting story — or “pod,” as it’s called on Current — about a Yale graduate who defends imprisoned youth, as well as activists’ efforts to reform the California Youth Authority. A noble undertaking, to be sure. But is such a story really going to keep young people from another go at the video game Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, with its nihilistic violence and gritty, amoral depiction of life? Probably not many. Amoral sells a lot better than earnest.

That isn’t to say Current, which structures its programming in small, 3-to-7 minute bites, can’t succeed. Only that it isn’t, and will never be, impactful enough to kick-start any revolutionary viewing habits. But that’s OK: If the first day’s programming is any indication, Current might at least come to successfully occupy a small place in the media universe — and get a few young people to see the kinds of important stories they won’t find on CNN. Though there was a lot of empty programming on day one, there were a few stories that deserve to be seen, most notably Adam Yamaguchi’s pieces on suicide in Japan, which included an interview with a young man who overdosed on pills in middle school, a discussion of a bestselling book on how to commit suicide, and an investigation into the search for “suicide partners.” Also worthwhile was a piece on Iranian young people in which they were shown at parties with scantily clad women and tablets of ecstasy, and asked if they thought there were gay people in their country. Both features replicated the experience of going to a foreign country, getting to know people, and discovering something you might otherwise not have.

But, man, did I really need to see the feature on Deepak Chopra and spirituality (complete with rolling waves) three times in two hours? Or suffer through Justin Gunn’s self-indulgent first-person feature on hacking? Much of Current’s present offerings are pretty painful to stomach: I wish I could have back the time I spent enduring the ramblings of the narcissistic graphic artist in Austin, for example, not to mention the profile of the Abercrombie and Fitch model who is really — can you believe it! — just a regular guy. Other features, such as one on the difficulty of buying a house, another on the excitement of being new parents, and another on a female, 29-year-old Baptist minister in Wisconsin, were just kind of … boring.

But, hey, Current is just getting started, and there’s plenty of room for improvement. The amateurish hosts have an endearing sincerity, and the mini-features, which have so far been busts, at least have potential. (One recurring mini-feature is “the top ten Google queries” about a particular word. Integrating the mysteries of Google into the programming is a great idea; squandering that opportunity on something as banal as the top ten Google searches containing the word “Current,” not so much.)

The challenge for Current will be to walk the delicate line between cool and worthwhile, something MTV, for one, largely gave up on long ago, pursuing cool (and deep-sixing worthwhile) in the quest for ratings. Current’s policy of relying on “viewer-created content” could be its salvation — if offerings along the lines of Yamaguchi’s suicide pieces pour in from around the country. If that happens, Current could become consistently enlightening instead of only intermittently so — although to get people to keep watching, the hosts will also have to stop referring to such content as “V.C. Squared” in an effort to seem cool. Not even “Zoom” is that lame.

Brian Montopoli

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Brian Montopoli is a writer at CJR Daily.