Cable channel puts viewers in the picture

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When the management team behind Current TV was dreaming up a name for their cable television channel, “Open Source TV” was a strong contender. The channel, launched on August 1, seeks content submissions from its target audience of 18- to 34-year-olds, thus drawing on the basic principles behind open source technologies: customised content and consumer participation.

“We see Current TV as a unique application of open source principles to the creation of television content,” says Joel Hyatt, Current’s chief executive.

Current reaches 20m households in the US via cable companies DirecTV, Time Warner Cable, and Comcast. About one-quarter of content is viewer-created, with the rest generated in-house or solicited from industry professionals.

Viewers with no broadcasting experience can upload self-produced video segments of up to five minutes in length to “Current Studio,” part of Current’s website dedicated to viewer-created content.

Pieces are broadcast online repeatedly, like an iPod Shuffle play list. Fellow viewers are then invited to watch and vote for segments they would like to see televised. The higher a story is ranked, the more times it is aired online. The best segments are selected for TV broadcast. Recent pieces included a feature about greyhound racing in London and coverage of Hurricane Katrina.

Fees for televised segments range from $250 to $1,000 based on the number of pieces aired. n addition to uploading and viewing content, users can also learn video production techniques, exchange ideas and post comments online.

“I love the idea that I can walk out the door with my camera, shoot a story, submit it to Current and see it aired within a week,” says contributor Yasmin Vossoughian. Current has broadcast her story about teenage sexuality in Iran and has commissioned another segment.

Despite initial positive reviews in the media, Current still faces challenges. Some contributors, for example, have criticised a policy that forces filmmakers to grant the network exclusive rights to their material for three months from the upload date.

With other grassroots media organisations, such as Ourmedia.org and Nowpublic.com, transmitting user-created content on the web, some think Current’s approach – seeking content online and showing it on TV – is obsolete.

But with broadband penetration standing at just 30 to 40 per cent in the US, Mr Hyatt sees the internet as a production rather than distribution medium.

The business model is also an issue. Current generates revenue from cable licensing fees and advertising, but according to Susan Mernit, a partner at the US digital media consultancy 5ive, the network will need to more than double its subscriber base to break even.

Still, Ms Mernit is positive about “open source” broadcasting, because of increased interest in blogging, the popularity of Reality TV, and the growing affordability of video cameras and editing software.

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