Al Gore gets Current with Web 2.0

The former vice president and a business partner were ahead of their time when they started a user-generated cable channel. Now they're looking to be pioneers on the Web.

By Adam Lashinsky, Fortune senior writer

(Fortune) -- Most folks thought the whole idea of "user-generated content" was kind of silly when Al Gore and his business partner Joel Hyatt started talking about it a few years ago.

Their plan was to create a television channel for young people that would encourage users to send in their own videos. Dumb idea, scoffed the TV experts. That, as they say, was then. Current TV, their creation, is a modest yet interesting success two years after its launch.

It's not YouTube, of course. But from an original cable grubstake of 17 million viewers that it acquired from a cable channel in Canada, Current is available in 41 million U.S. households and 52 million worldwide. Hyatt says Current was profitable in last year's fourth quarter on the strength of licensing fees it collects from cable and satellite networks as well its growing advertising business.

Its audience remains too tiny for Nielsen ratings. But Current claims to have the highest percentage of viewers in the coveted 18- to 34-year-old demographic of any television channel. (A high percentage of a low number is a low number, of course. Everyone's got to play to their strengths.)

Hyatt's executives noticed something else that was interesting in their research: 70 percent of their viewers claim to have an active laptop open, connected to the Internet, while watching the channel. The group took that insight and headed in the direction one might have expected it to from the very beginning: Online.

Today, the company is launching a redesigned Web site that has features that are as undeniably cool and youth-oriented as its hipster-geek television sibling. The site, Current.com, is transforming itself from essentially a how-to tool for landing videos on the television station into a full-on Web content site, a news-and-information counterpart to MySpace and Facebook.

"Given our charter, our opportunity was to flip the equation," says Joanna Drake Earl, Current's president for new media and founding executive of the company. "The challenge is not to use the Web to distribute but to create an online production studio."

The Web site is immediately likeable. It's got a great programming "wheel" that shows users what's playing on the TV channel - and lets them watch videos too, in some instances before the content has appeared on the airwaves.

It's got a lot of the bells and whistles young people have come to expect from social networking sites - an opportunity to share content with friends, brain-dead-easy video and photo uploading tools - but also a clean look and a welcoming vibe.

There's also something earnest about Current.com and its TV companion. It's on-air hosts and online editors are cool and say "dude" from time to time. But they're unabashedly interested in what's going on in Mogadishu and Chechnya.

A powerful feature lets users upload Web-cam recorded comments of no longer than 60 seconds. (Think of the legions of oddballs holed up in their apartments writing letters to the editors of the New York Times; Current.com allows its Web-savvy users to broadcast comments to each other.)

Serious journalists, and anyone concerned about civic life, ought to root for Current.com. If anyone's got a chance at getting young people interested in complex topics, this it.

"We like to say we're building the television home page for the Internet generation," says Earl. Now they're building the Internet home page for the television home page too.  Top of page