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Current TV Succeeds (and Fails) by Pursuing Interactivity, Bar (Karma) None
April 6, 2011  | By Eric Gould
 

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-- First in an occasional look at alt-channels with unique missions or content) --

Last week, Bill Maher said that finding the Reelz channel, new home of the orphaned Kennedy miniseries, was harder than finding Al Jazeera. With a thousand channels, narrowcasting, or niche broadcasting, has something for everyone. That includes Current TV, which is something Al Gore actually DID invent...

The Current TV cable and satellite network, which launched in 2005, is a mixed bag of original and "acquired" programming that sometimes hits the mark, and sometimes -- well, been there, seen that, seen it done better.

It's a channel with an interactive broadcast mission that you want to love, despite its frustratingly common underachieving. But it's trying, and even its less than fully successful efforts can be interesting.

TV is now seeping into the culture via the internet and wireless, and its methods and content are morphing by nature. You would expect to be rewarded by a channel, such as Current, that is trying to develop a new paradigm: television that integrates the interactivity and social networking of the web.

With its VCAM programming (Viewer Created Ad Messages) indie and amateur filmmakers can get their work accepted and broadcast, with surprisingly refreshing and timely political and environmental messages getting on the air.

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With Bar Karma, a new series in the middle of its first season, Current has given us a light-hearted, thirty minute Hindu salad of karmic choices and time-space distortion -- all with a web presence that solicits viewer content to shape the show.

Current claims that, with Bar Karma, the network has one of the first community-developed television series. On the Current website, fans get to select plots and plot threads, and decide in which direction the show will head next.

Co-created by Will Wright, creator of the massively popular video games The Sims and SimCity, the half-hour show utilizes Wrights' software, StoryMaker Engine (available to see on the Bar Karma website HERE.)

The goal of the Karma writers is to tap into the audience's creativity and dedication, and make it part of the show. Successful contributors to the script, soundtrack, etc., get credited.

The titular bar in Bar Karma is a trippy "watering hole at the edge of the universe," where wayward souls in the middle of life's crossroads stumble in, Quantum Leap-style, to sort out their dilemmas.

They're usually stuck between a bad choice and a worse one, and can see possible futures played out on the bar's TV and in its card games.

Polly Draper, formerly of thirtysomething, co-wrote and starred in a recent episode about a U.S. Senator, in the near future, who had to either publicly support birth control laws she was breaking, or somehow change her fate to avoid jail.

Friday's new episode (premiering on Current at 10 p.m. ET) stars Genie Francis, formerly of General Hospital, as a waitress displaying multiple personalities. The episode is directed by Francis' real-life husband, Jonathan Frakes of Star Trek: The Next Generation. A sneak peek is provided here, to give a sense of both the episode and the series:

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The regular crew at Bar Karma includes journeyman William Sanderson (of Deadwood and, even more notably, as Larry from Newhart) as the bartender, and newcomers Cassie Howarth and Matthew Humphreys. Together, they help usher customers through some introspection, and to consider there might be -- and there probably is -- a third way they haven't seen.

The upside here is that we have here an inventive, freewheeling romp through variations on the theme of "one door closes and another one opens." The downside is a California-cornucopia of new-agism and supermarket Buddhism. Seems like the operators at the Bar Karma are way into the Socratic method.

The addition of Bar Karma to Current's line up is a good one -- but alas, as it's been said here at TVWW, "If it's on Current, it's not." Their programming is often good, sometimes average, but a lot of it is throwaway.

Perhaps as a sign of budget or ratings worries, the network is loading up on adventure shows such as Hooked on Danger and SWAT: Miami-Dade. Hardly shows you would expect alongside This American Life or Long Way Around -- two of their better offerings, but ones that, again, are "acquired." That is, reruns.

Current TV's investigative reporting series Vanguard, more international in scope, tends to fall short, in tone and gravitas, when compared to PBS's venerable Frontline. And Infomania, their snarky entertainment and culture show, while often smart, suffers mostly from not having the likes of a Joel McHale or Jon Stewart on point.

All in all, not the direction you would have guessed the former Vice President envisioned Current TV going. That all may be changing, however, with the announced addition of a new Keith Olbermann show in late spring. That just might put Current TV on everyone's radar.

Regardless, 2011 may become known as the year our TV screens finally merged with our computers, and the content, format and style of each acknowledged the other and adapted. Somewhere out there, there's a new model, and a new day, for television.

It's just not there yet. Not Current-ly.

 
 
 
 
 
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