Al Jazeera takes Current into the reality TV market

Apr 1, 2013

San Francisco’s Current TV is going through significant changes, again. The channel, co-founded by former Vice President Al Gore, was sold to Al Jazeera for half-a-billion dollars in January. It’s a lot of money, but the gamble could pay off for the Arab network by providing entreé to the lucrative American media market.

Current, which initially tried to capitalize on user-generated content, has had trouble cracking that marketplace. It developed a stable of left-leaning political programs, including “The Young Turks” and “The Gavin Newsom Show,” but neither made Current a household name.

So what will Al-Jazeera do? Industry analysts speculate it will dissolve Current and reprogram it to create Al-Jazeera America. But KALW investigative reporter Chris Hoff got inside access to secret meetings taking place at Current headquarters in San Francisco to find out what’s really going to happen. Hoff filed this report.

Reshaping a network for a new reality

If you’re a studio executive, and you’re thinking about what works in television, it all comes down to one word: reality.

Since “Survivor” debuted on CBS in the year 2000, there’s been a seemingly endless parade of reality TV shows.

You’ve got "The Bachelor", and "The Bachelorette", "Dancing with the Stars", and that Trump show. Like a tiny car in a circus tent, the clowns keep piling out. There was the show with Flavor Flav, and Tommy Lee, and San Francisco’s own Brian Boitano. And of course: "Cops".

Lydia Nami has watched them all. It’s part of her job, as interim Director of Programming for Al-Jazeera Bay, the local branch, where she’s tasked with figuring out what will resonate with their target audience.

“Sixteen- to 24-year-old men. Probably bored. Maybe not, you know, the brightest bulbs in the room,” says Nami.

I’m sitting with Nami in Al-Jazeera Bay’s new San Francisco office, which is Current’s old office, near the Lucky Strike Bowling Alley across from AT&T Park. We’re doing what she does pretty much all the time – watching television.

But while we’re watching “Celebrity Wife Swap,” something catches her eye. A commercial for a brand new offering from ABC, “Splash.” 

“Kareem Abdul Jabaar jumping off the high dive? Shoot me now,” exclaims Nami.

Nami receives a phone call from the corporate office. They say they just saw the same ad. They say we’ve got to go further. I hear Nami say under her breath, “Oh, God. I should have become a doctor.”

It’s two days later, and Nami has assembled her top staffers along with several expensive industry consultants and Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom’s assistant to brainstorm the next generation of reality shows.

Nami speaks to the room, “Alright, people, listen up. I’ve gathered you here today because you’re the best minds in the business. If anyone can come up with what the 2013 TV audience wants to see, it’s you.”

Nami pulls out her smartphone and hits a button. The lights dim, a hidden panel in the ceiling at the end of the room opens, and a screen slowly lowers down. It’s the latest reality show from TruTV, “Guinness Book of World Records Gone Wild.” This is what Nami’s team is competing with. The commercial shows a person trying to break the record for the most mousetrap snaps on a tongue. 

“This is the stupidest thing I’ve ever seen in my entire life,” says one of the consultants.

To which Nami replies: “Exactly! Stupid sells. And we’re not leaving this room until we’ve found something stupider.” 

Three hours later, the exhausted team trudges out of the conference room.  I ask if she thinks she got one. 

“Do you mean, ‘Do I think I have the most patently insane idea for a television show in the history of television? Maybe,” Nami replies. 

One month later, Lydia Nami and I are back in her office, doing the same thing she does every day: watching terrible television. 

She looks at her watch. Then slyly looks over at me, and says, “It’s 5:17. Watch this.”

She turns on a commercial for the worst reality show ever. 

It’s tough to reach an audience. To find that certain something that makes a TV show pop. The perfect combination of judges, B-list actors, or C-list.

Nami receives a phone call. It’s Al Gore.

“He said he wants to be on the show,” says Nami. “He also said he had that exact same idea. What a joker.” 

She says she’ll only have him on if he gets them good ratings.

And with that, Lydia Nami turns off her TV.

What ideas do you have for a new reality TV show? Call us and let us know. Just leave a message on our tipline at 415-264-7106.

This story originally aired in a very special April First edition of Crosscurrents.