This is the first interview in Chapter 4 in my new book, Designing Media

Joel Hyatt, November 2008

Following a distinguished legal and political career with a recurring theme of opening closed systems to enhance participation, Joel Hyatt served as national finance chair for the Democratic Party in the presidential election campaign of 2000, getting to know Al Gore in the process. After the election Joel and Al developed a concept to combine television broadcasting with participation by audience members, enabled by the Internet. In 2004, they purchased Newsworld International, a cable news channel programmed by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation that aired news programming from around the world, and started to build a team in San Francisco. They relaunched the network as the Current TV platform on August 1, 2005, providing a news and information service that pioneered the concept of user-generated content on cable and satellite TV.

Current TV Offices

They had noticed that the content on the Web combined top-down and bottom-up delivery. Traditional media organizations, which had embraced both the physical and the digital, were aggregating high-quality products from various places and delivering them in a top-down structure. Examples of this approach were the New York Times with NYTimes.com and CNN with CNN.com. They were also intrigued by bottom-up percolations like Digg.com, where people can discover and share content from anywhere on the Web, but noticed that they were limited almost exclusively to the technology-savvy community. They could find nothing that captured the middle ground, using the principles of bottom-up but also bringing the editorial and curation of the top-down. They realized this could be a fertile opportunity for leveraging both worlds.

Current TV in 2011

Viewers of Current TV create about 40% of the output, and the audience influences all of it. The example created by Current TV and Current.com has influenced media giants with feet in both worlds. For example, CNN has added iReport.com to its Web presence, with the slogan, “Unedited. Unfiltered. News.” and the request to “Send us in some cell phone footage.” Current TV inhabits more than both worlds, as there is a political world of idealistic intention driving the thinking of both Joel Hyatt and Al Gore. They want to “give voice to a whole generation whose voice was not being heard,” and seek to strike a balance between the well-intentioned paternalism of their TV programming and the community participation of user-generated content. Joel wants to design an approach that will be popular for an audience ranging in age from eighteen to thirty-two, giving them what they really want, which is not always what an older generation of management thinks they should want. He believes in listening to and learning from the audience, while using the wisdom of experience to avoid the lowest common denominator. I hope that this idealistic version of both worlds can flourish in competition with more commercially motivated offerings.

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