Al Gore has been reincarnated. Gone are the stuffy suits and ties. These days you're more likely to spot him in a hip, open-at-the-collar, all-black ensemble. Gone also is the wooden, almost mechanical personality. He's all smiles and jokes with his new clique of beautiful twenty- and thirty-somethings.
This is not the two-term Vice President Gore who lost a presidential run five years ago. This is the Gore who today is launching Current, a new cable TV channel/Internet site for 18-to-34-year-olds that aims to turn traditional television on its head.
Some of the channel's programming will be produced professionally, but it will also feature contributions from amateurs who will be able to upload their video segments -- on topics such as technology, music, relationships, spirituality and politics -- using the venture's Web site.
In touting the channel, Gore has said it will give "those who crave the empowerment of the Web the same opportunity for expression on television" and will allow young Americans to "participate in the dialogue of democracy."
Gore, 57, the ultimate Washington insider, the policy wonk endlessly mocked for supposedly saying he invented the Internet, is now trying to reinvent it.
He is among the flood of former government officials who in recent years have headed to Silicon Valley and are making their marks on the world of technology and media.
Former secretary of state Colin Powell announced last month that he would serve as a strategic limited partner to storied venture capital firm Kleiner, Perkins, Caufield & Byers, which has funded such success stories as Sun Microsystems, Genentech and Amazon.com. This past spring, Tom Ridge, former chief of the Department of Homeland Security, joined the board of Savi Technology, which uses radio tags to track cargo containers and other objects around the world. Ridge said he's found the pace and excitement of work in Silicon Valley to be as challenging as in Washington. "It's probably one of the most stimulating environments going," he said.
And Jack Kemp, former secretary of Housing and Urban Development, who in 1996 was Bob Dole's vice presidential running mate, is on the board of database powerhouse Oracle Corp.
There has always been a revolving door between government and industry, but the relationship between Silicon Valley and Washington is like the one between Mars and Venus, said Reed E. Hundt, a former Federal Communications Commission chairman who sits on the boards of a half-dozen Silicon Valley companies. "One would regard the other planet as utterly uninhabitable."
That was especially true during the heady days of the late 1990s, when tech entrepreneurs preferred hanging out with rock stars to schmoozing with politicians and wanted little to do with government policymakers, and when it seemed the government was interested in high-tech types mostly for their campaign contributions. Today, however, there's more of a mutual respect."Technology is changing the world, and people in Washington who were drawn to public service to begin with are seeing that getting involved in Silicon Valley is a way to be part of that," said Ron Sege, president and chief executive of Tropos, a wireless networking company.
Gore is arguably the most prominent former federal government official in Silicon Valley.
Four years ago, Gore teamed up with Joel Hyatt, an attorney and entrepreneur who served as national finance chairman for the Democratic Party in 2000 and is probably better known for the Hyatt Legal Services commercials, to begin brainstorming how to create a media outlet that would involve ordinary folks. In 2004, the friends pooled some of their money along with that of about 20 other investors -- including Bob Pittman, formerly of America Online and MTV; Rob Glaser, chief executive of RealNetworks; and the investment firm of Richard Blum, husband of Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) -- and purchased Newsworld International for a reported $70 million. The 24-hour channel, available in 20 million homes via DirecTV and mostly Time Warner and Comcast systems, will relaunch as Current.
All subscribers of DirecTV satellite service will get Current with their basic package. The channel will not be available to Comcast customers in the Washington area, but those in Atlanta, Los Angeles, Seattle, Denver, Richmond and many other metropolitan markets will have access.
Based in San Francisco's South of Market/China Basin area, where countless, no-name dot-coms were born and died, Current's offices feature a glass-enclosed editing room where passers-by on the street can peek at the channel's latest videos being put together on two giant digital monitors on the walls.
The company is filled with promising but as yet mostly unknown media figures; most of Current's 120-plus staffers are under 40.
The roster of on-air reporters and producers includes Shauntay Hinton, a former Miss USA who studied broadcast journalism at Howard University and has been active in women's charities; Gotham Chopra, president of development for the largest comic book studio in India and co-creator of K lounge, described as a "Kama Sutra bar and lounge" in New York; Johnny Bell, a surfer who graduated from UCLA and has no TV experience but has worked on a banana farm in Central America; and Laura Ling, a former producer for the Channel One Network, the commercial educational channel broadcast in secondary schools.
Ling, a 28-year-old who also heads Current's "vanguard journalism" division, the group that will produce some segments, said the company is very "caj" (casual) and that among the best parts about it is that practically everyone who works there is in the same demographic as the target audience.
"The reporters are in the demo so they can speak to people in the demo. We are trying to remove some of the conventions that they might see in other outlets but might not respond to," Ling said.
Gore, Hyatt, 55, and programming chief David Neuman, 44, a former executive at NBC, Channel One, Disney and CNN, are the cool older-brother figures in the company. They try to create a fun, laid-back atmosphere in the offices and studios by doing things such as stocking a snack station with free Skittles and Fritos. Other D.C. power figures go by their D.C. titles in Silicon Valley -- Powell is addressed as "General Powell" and likewise Ridge is "Governor Ridge" -- but Gore likes to be called "Al."
Hyatt, Current's chief executive, said that although he and Gore regularly pop into meetings about content, they try to leave most of the editing and other decisions up to their younger colleagues.
"We're very much aware that we are a few years removed from our target demo," Hyatt said.
The venture returns Gore, who was a reporter for the Nashville Tennessean newspaper for more than four years before beginning his political career, to his journalistic roots. The company says it will be the "TV equivalent of the iPod shuffle," a reference to the popular portable music player made by Apple. (Not coincidentally, Gore sits on the company's board.)
Stories will run in a fast-paced short form. Instead of 30- to 60-minute shows, there will be vignettes from 15 seconds to five minutes. About 25 percent of the programming will be "news," 30 percent "information," 20 percent "social," 20 percent "escape" and 5 percent "wild card." Woven in between these snippets of video will be commentary from Current's hosts.
There's also a Google tie-in. Every half-hour Current will report news that is based on what people are searching for on Google at that very moment.
Some television analysts have questioned whether the company will be able to find enough amateur content to fill the airtime and to hold the interest of the notoriously fickle Generations X and Y. There's also some skepticism that the channel's lack of a schedule will confuse viewers.
But Hyatt says the channel's unpredictability is what will make it appealing. The programming aims to be different from documentary TV, video blogging or reality shows, something more than a combination of CNN and MTV.
Hyatt said the Web site, www.current.tv, will list upcoming features up to an hour ahead of time but that the programming will be dynamic, changing based on viewers' feedback about what they like and don't like.
"We are going to be responding in real time to what we're learning," he said.
The viewer-contributed videos include features about everything from fish market sellers to underground youth culture in Iran. In one feature, contributor Mike Rinehart profiles "jumpers" who parachute off buildings, antennas and other high places. The footage -- taken in midair -- takes you down a stomach-turning drop as one of the daredevils says in a calm, Zen-like monotone: "I'm free of everything forever, however long it is, wiping my hands clean of it all until I have to regain it by landing."
In another, a woman speaks in first person about "hooking up" and how she regrets sleeping with "Doug" because he now wants to dump her.
Bias and opinions in these "citizen" reports will not only be tolerated but desirable.
"We think that people are opinionated and want to share their opinions. . . . I think it's great that we can be a place to have a dialogue about different issues," Ling said.
In a bow to "American Idol," users of the Web site will be able to vote for their favorite citizen-generated video segments. The most popular will be aired on the cable channel.
There will also be more practical content, including advice for first-time parents and about careers. A regular technology segment will look into subjects such as how to hack the computer systems that operate the Toyota Prius hybrid car.
Meanwhile, Ling's news division is tackling some harder-hitting issues, sending teams around the world to report on topics important to youth. Some segments in the works, Ling said, include a feature about young people in Japan forming Internet suicide pacts, methamphetamine use in the United States, and secret missionary groups operating in China.
While he was attending a promotional event for television critics earlier this month, Gore -- whose official title is chairman -- was onstage speaking about the venture while a gaggle of Current employees stood behind him half-smiling, half-slouching and looking like a Gap ad. He emphasized how everything about Current was Different with a capital D. The programs are not programs but "pods" and the commercials are not commercials but "ICBMs," Isolated Creative Brand Messages, a play on the intercontinental ballistic missiles that the world feared before WMDs.
When asked about politics, Gore deflected the questions, answering that he's really a "recovering politician," emphasizing that the channel is nonpartisan, and turning the conversation back to technology and entertainment. At one point, he was asked how he had enjoyed working at a startup for the past few years. A 21-year-old hipster couldn't have said it better: "It has been a blast," Gore exclaimed without hesitation.
Staff writer Lisa de Moraes in Beverly Hills and researcher Richard Drezen in New York contributed to this report.