American democracy is in danger as long as citizens get most of their information from television news, former presidential candidate Al Gore said in a speech promoting a new, non-traditional TV network that airs content submitted by viewers.

“I came here today because I believe that American democracy is in grave danger,” the former vice president said Wednesday in a keynote speech at a conference for media professionals on “citizen journalism” organized by The Media Center, a media think tank in Reston, Va., and hosted by the Associated Press at its headquarters in New York.

In a scathing critique of the news media, Gore said reliance on television news threatens the “marketplace of ideas” envisioned by democracy’s founders. Unlike affordable printing presses of past generations, television stations and networks are inaccessible to individuals, and they increasingly view news not as a way to inform but rather to gain eyeballs and sell advertising.

The only avenues left for the expression of public or political ideas on television, Gore said, is through the purchase of 30-second chunks of advertising. That is why political committees now seek candidate who can spend millions on advertising from their own resources, he said, and one reason why the halls of Congress are filling up with the wealthy.

“Our democracy has been hollowed out,” Gore said. “The opinions of the voters are, in effect, purchased, just as demand for new products is artificially created.”

Gore is trying to do something about it, he said, through a new medium of television that recreates “a multi-way conversation that includes and operates according to the meritocracy of ideas.”

Along with Joel Hyatt, Gore helped launch “Current TV” on Aug. 1, a network that uses “viewer submitted content.” The first national network created by and for an 18-34 year-old audience offering 24 hours of independent programming, Current adopts what has made the Internet a successful medium among young adults–customizable content and consumer participation.

It offers short-format content on a variety of interests, most of which are now rarely found on TV, while enlisting viewers to become creative partners by providing an open forum to submit viewer-produced content. That makes it the first television network with programming that is supplied in part by its viewers, according to a press kit.

An avalanche of high-quality video, photos and e-mailed news following the July 7 bombing in London marked a turning point for the British Broadcasting Corporation, the head of its global news division, said at the conference.

“We don’t own the news any more,” said Richard Sambrook, director of the BBC World Service and Global News Division. Rather, he said, the BBC is evolving from being a broadcaster to a facilitator of news. “This is a fundamental realignment of the relationship between large media companies and the public.”

Current is now available to 20 million viewers on DirectTV, Time Warner Cable and Comcast systems in key markets. The network aims at 50 million in the next five years, Gore said at a Friday press conference.

About 30 percent of Current’s content is programming submitted by viewers, most through its Web site. That’s up from 25 percent when the network originally ran, and far more than the 5 percent the network expected at launch.

Borrowing from the familiar i-Pod shuffle media-consumption trend, the network puts together “pods” of 15-second to five-minute segments that run throughout the day. The mix is 25 percent news, 30 percent information, 20 percent social, 20 percent escape and 5 percent originals.

Topics range from technology, fashion, television, music and videogames to pressing issues such as the environment, relationships, spirituality, politics, finance and parenting. Segments are introduced by on-air talent.

“Until now, the notion of viewer participation has been limited to sending a tape to ‘America’s Funniest Home Videos,’ calling an interview show, taking part in an instant poll, or voting someone off of an island,” Gore said in a press release. “We’re creating a powerful new brand of television that doesn’t treat audiences as merely viewers, but as collaborators.”

While the Internet is exciting, Gore said, it will be some time before it is capable or supporting real-time mass distribution of full-motion video, the single most powerful characteristic of television.

Current borrows from both media, however, including a strategic partnership with the popular search engine Google.

Bob Allen is managing editor of

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