Cable channel sales president hands content control over to consumers

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Anne Zehren believes in the power of audience participation.

In fact, she relied heavily on it during her days as founding publisher of Time Inc.'s Teen People, where she created a trend-spotting program that put some 12,000 influential readers in direct contact with the magazine's editors and advertisers.

At her new venture, startup cable channel Current, she and her team will throw open the doors even further for TV viewers. Members of the 18-to-34-year-old target audience will not only be able to determine entertainment and ad content, but they'll be able to create it themselves. The San Francisco-based brainchild of former Vice President Al Gore and entrepreneur Joel Hyatt, Current is scheduled to launch in August.

It was the logical next step, Ms. Zehren said, in a world where a blog is created every 5.5 seconds and nearly every form of media is easily customized. Young adults are taking more control, increasingly making sure they see themselves and their priorities reflected in their entertainment.

"We're looking at a seismic change where consumers are in control, and digital tools make content creation a commodity," said Ms. Zehren, 43, who is Current's president-sales and marketing. "I feel like young audiences are clamoring for an idea like this. After they graduate from MTV, where do they go?"

Advertisers are craving a service like this, too, she believes. Marketers are frustrated by the confines and expense of TV, where their spots are reaching smaller audiences, if they make it past the TiVo at all.


The channel, with about 20 million households via Comcast and Time Warner cable systems and DirecTV, will build from the ground up an experimental service that's been described as the TV equivalent of the iPod shuffle, with viewer involvement being a significant part of its mission.

Short-form programming that's anywhere from 15 seconds to five minutes in length will air in pods that are themed to such topics as advice for first-time parents, career guidance, music, fashion and technology. A branded segment called Google Current will show, in 30-seconds to three minutes, the most popular Google searches as a twist on the more traditional news show.

About 90% of the network's content will be created by professionals, but 10% will come from viewers. Most amateur work will be available at the channel's Web site, where viewers will vote on what will make it to the air. Viewers also will have a hand in shaping regular programming.

Her ability to marry content, entertainment and consumers made her ideal for the venture, said Charlie Walk, exec VP, Columbia Records Group, who's worked with Ms. Zehren for a number of years.

"She's a connector," Mr. Walk said. "She can take all the contacts she has, and mesh and mold them together in a way that works."

Ms. Zehren thinks there's a pent-up demand for a channel like Current and points to a recent launch event in San Francisco that drew some 5,000 young adults to a live concert hosted by rapper and actor Mos Def.

Making the rounds on Madison Avenue, Ms. Zehren is pitching traditional 30-second spots, but the network will take a new approach to those as well.

Current is selling sponsorship packages so that advertisers can surround a pod of programming that fits their brand, whether it's financial services or films. The aim is to help the ads stand out in a way they aren't able to on network or cable TV. The sponsors can be verbally integrated into the content via interstitials in which their brands are mentioned.

The network also plans to create regular spots on the schedule for long-form ads that a marketer might find too costly or too difficult to do on other channels. Some marketers can even choose to let viewers create ads, with the work shown on the Web site and possibly on air.

"This is a great audience target that drives a lot of the economy," said Carla Hendra, president of WPP Group's OgilvyOne, North America. "Clients are trying to experiment, and I think they'll test the waters here. It's a clever idea with some very smart people behind it."

Just Asking

Web sites she can't go a day without:,, iFilms.

What she does when she's not working: Travel. Among her favorite spots are Thailand and Vietnam. She got married a few years ago in Cape Town, South Africa.

Most recent live show she's seen: Punk-pop princesses The Donnas

How she gets her exercise: She traded in her long-distance running shoes for ice skates.

How she exercises her brain: She's started playing the piano again. "It's therapeutic."

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