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So What Do You Do, Joel Hyatt, CEO and Co-Founder of Current TV?

'We are all in as a political commentary and news analysis network'

- March 21, 2012
Current TV, the cable television channel founded by former Vice President Al Gore and Joel Hyatt in 2005, has gone through some serious changes in its relatively short time on the air.

In 2009, it announced plans to shift its focus from the user generated format it was founded on to broadcasting 24 hours of progressive news, commentary and analysis. Then, there was the hiring of Keith Olbermann last summer, followed by that of Internet pioneer Cenk Uygur and former Michigan governor Jennifer Granholm. And the network just announced that it will be expanding into daytime with six more hours of original programming, including two new shows debuting March 26: Talking Liberally: The Stephanie Miller Show and Full Court Press: The Bill Press Show. Will all that be enough for the upstart to dethrone CNN, Fox News or MSNBC? Hyatt, who stepped back into the CEO role in July, thinks so.

"The fact is... those other three cable news networks have an average age for their audience that starts with a six," he said. "We'd like to talk to the generation younger than that, because they are the ones who are going to make the decisions that will have an impact on our society. They're not retired, sitting at home watching cable news on those three networks all day. Instead, they're active and they're involved and that's who we want to be engaging."

Name: Joel Hyatt
Position: CEO and co-founder of Current TV
Resume: Worked as campaign director and chief political advisor for his father-in-law Howard Metzenbaum (D-Ohio). Founded Hyatt Legal Services and, later, Hyatt Legal Plans. Ran for U.S. Senate in 1994, won the Democratic primary for Metzenbaum's seat in Ohio, but lost in the general election. Taught at Stanford University's law and business schools for five years. Named National Finance Chair for the Democratic Party in 2000. Launched Current TV with Al Gore in 2005, serving as CEO until 2009. Returned as CEO in July 2011.
Birthday: May 6
Hometown: San Francisco
Education: Dartmouth College and Yale Law School
Marital status: Married
Media Idol: Walter Cronkite -- "He was always real, never phony and he was about journalism, not infotainment... It was when there still was serious journalism"
Favorite TV shows: Current's prime time lineup
Guilty pleasure: Cheese
Last book read: No Ordinary Time by Doris Kearns Goodwin
Twitter handle: @joelhyatt

There are a lot of ways to get into the media industry. Why did you decide to go about it this way?
Actually, there are not a lot of ways you can get into the cable television industry. There are virtually no ways you can get into it, and that's an important point. It's an industry controlled by an oligopoly. And Al and I tried to get into that industry on our own by starting a new cable network, but we were unable to get any distribution agreements from any of the distributors. As a result, we found a little network to buy as a way to get into the industry. So, we bought News World International from Vivendi when Vivendi was selling its media assets. But that gave us a base. NWI at the time had distribution agreements for just 17 million subscriber households in the U.S., so that for us was a base on which we could build something. Today, Current is available in 60 million subscriber households, but that was the entry into what was a closed industry.

"Today, there is no media company in the world that doesn't want to engage audiences -- none did when Al and I launched Current"

Can you talk more about the oligopoly in cable television that you're trying to go up against?
Almost all, and darn near all, television networks are owned by a handful of companies. Some of those companies not only have content but distribute the content through cable systems, and so it's a very, very controlled industry where a very few number of companies control what all Americans see, what information they get. And we just felt that there needed to be independent voices heard; there needed to be more of a diversity of voices heard, but most importantly, our ambition was to take the power of the platform and share it with our audience and with our users.

Today, there's no media company in the world that is not spending a lot of time trying to engage its audience, get them to participate with the content, get them involved. All media companies do that today -- none did it when Al and I launched Current. None. So we're really proud of that. It's part of our DNA and it's part of what we set out to do. And we've done it, frankly, not just for our company but we're pleased to say, for the entire media industry.

It seems like now Current is moving away from user generated content as you try to establish yourselves as a progressive news network. Where do you see user generated content fitting into the new direction of Current?
It's part of our DNA. It's still very important to us that viewers and users are engaged and involved with our content, so participatory features will be used in all of our programming. You're right that we no longer are trying to have a television network that is entirely premised on user generated content. At the end of the day, our conclusion was, that didn't work. And so our programming direction right now is very, very clear: We are all in as a political commentary and news analysis network…But we will continue to innovate ways in which our viewers and users can participate, can be involved, can engage with the content, can contribute content. That's always going to be part of who we are.

Keith Olbermann came from one of your rival networks. How has your relationship with him developed over the past few months? There has been a lot of news about management clashes with him...
That's all distracting to us. We don't pay attention to that. Keith puts on a great show and he has a loyal following. Most importantly, the decision to bring Keith to Current TV is what clarified for our network the strategic vision in which we were heading.

What are you looking for in new talent when you bring on hosts like Cenk or your new daytime hosts Stephanie Miller and Bill Press?
We'll always be looking for really thoughtful, insightful commentators who have something important to say. If there's a guidepost, that's clearly it. We're looking for people who are intelligent, who are fact based, who care about seeking truth. All of that's going to be very, very important to us... Stephanie and Bill already have large followings and that's useful for a young, growing network, because we're hoping that their followings will indeed follow them to Current TV. And same with Cenk.

We're going to look for budding journalists, young journalists who we think are really smart with a bright future, get them on Current. We're going to look for practitioners of public policy, like Jennifer Granholm. We’ll soon be naming others in that category, people who have actually done the hard work of public service and who are very committed to it, who understand it from the inside. They know spin when they hear it; they know BS when they hear it; they can stand up to it because they've been there and done that. So, we're going to have a mixture. And really the exciting part of building what we're building is finding really talented people who have important things to say and giving them a platform to do that.

"We've seen so much of professional journalism replaced by infotainment, entertainment and, frankly, pure fraud."

What is your end goal for Current over the next few years and long term? How do you plan to increase viewership and grow the channel?
Our goal for Current is to influence the conversation of democracy. We want to have an impact on the public policy discussion. And to measure how we're having an impact, ratings is as good an index as any other. As a cable television network, we live with ratings in any event, and it's as good a proxy as any as to whether we're building an audience through which we can have the impact that we seek. We are growing our ratings steadily. We're very pleased with the progress. We're going to be doing more marketing, more social media, more PR to drive increased viewership. Truth be told, we've done very little marketing historically, but you really have to have a slate of programming to justify that. But for the first time, this year, we're going to put millions of dollars behind marketing our lineup, because we now have a great lineup and we need to tell the world that it's there, because we know that when people tune into it and experiment with it they’ll become loyal viewers.

As someone who previously worked in politics, what is your take on cable TV election coverage and the current coverage of the Republican primaries and Presidential race?
There are times in which the cable networks do a really outstanding job; there are times in which I think the job they do is embarrassingly bad. I think that what journalism needs to do is seek truth. And that means care about facts, care about science, care about reasoning, and help provide context to the audience, so the audience can understand how these issues affect their lives, so the audience is better able to connect the dots between disparate issues and disparate events and what they mean in the larger context.

That's the true purpose of journalism: find and seek the facts, the truth. Convey it; explore it; create context for it; connect the dots. We're very proud of the work we're doing in that regard. Are there programs on our competitor networks that do that? Yes. Is that the general rule on those networks? No. That's not just my opinion. The reality is we've seen so much of professional journalism dissipate away to be replaced by infotainment, entertainment and frankly I think pure fraud, since it's being passed along, purported to be news. It's just a fraud to call it news.

NEXT >> AvantGuildHey, How'd You Draw 250 Million Viewers to Your Web Show, Young Turks?

Amanda Ernst is a freelance writer living in New York. She also manages business development and social media marketing for B5 Media, the publisher of five women's lifestyle sites.

© WebMediaBrands Inc. 2012. All Rights Reserved.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. The foregoing is the sole property of WebMediaBrands Inc. The opinions and views expressed in the interviews and/or commentaries are solely those of the participants and are not necessarily the views of WebMediaBrands Inc., its affiliates or subsidiary companies.

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