The $100 million arm-twist: How Al Gore closed the deal with Al-Jazeera; Update: Time Warner drops Current/AJ; Update: “We are keeping an open mind”

posted at 11:21 am on January 4, 2013 by Ed Morrissey

Hint: it wasn’t pretty. In order to close the deal with Al-Jazeera, Al Gore had to retain the oddly lucrative distribution arrangements he had made with cable and satellite networks to carry his Current TV channel.  With ratings nearly non-existent, an ownership change may have given those distributors a reason to dump the channel — and scotch a $100 million payday for Gore.  According to Brian Stelter in the New York Times, Gore hinted that refusing to grant Al-Jazeera the same access as Current TV would be evidence of bigotry:

Al Gore’s Current TV was never popular with viewers, but it was a hit where it counted: with cable and satellite providers. When he co-founded the channel in 2005, Mr. Gore managed to get the channel piped into tens of millions of households — a huge number for an untested network — through a combination of personal lobbying and arm-twisting of industry giants.

He called on those skills again after deciding in December to sell Current TV to Al Jazeera for $500 million. To preserve the deal — and the estimated $100 million he would personally receive — he went to some of those same distributors, who were looking for an excuse to drop the low-rated channel, and reminded them that their contracts with Current TV called it a news channel. Were the distributors going to say that an American version of Al Jazeera didn’t qualify, possibly invoking ugly stereotypes of the Middle Eastern news giant?

“The lawyers for the carriers couldn’t find their way around it,” said a person briefed on the negotiations who described them on condition of anonymity.

I’ve appeared once or twice on Al-Jazeera, and find them less biased against the US than Russia Today, but that’s hardly a high bar to clear.  They’ve handled themselves professionally, and clearly want to build some credibility in the English-speaking and other Western markets. Anyone who has traveled to Europe knows how well they’ve succeeded in those markets already.

With that all said, AJ already has a web-based distribution channel to the US, which means anyone with a decent connection speed can already get their content.  If cable and satellite distributors thought that adding AJ to their lineup would add subscribers, they would have already cut a deal with them.  No one is depriving Americans of Al-Jazeera’s point of view, and using this kind of argument in order to score a nine-figure payoff from the very oil emirs that Gore usually decries should make everyone glad that he’s in the private sector.

Stelter also notes the surprise in the industry over Current’s price tag:

Television executives and observers were surprised by both the big price tag and the decision by Mr. Gore, one of the best-known proponents for action to combat global warming, to sell to a Middle Eastern monarchy built with oil wealth.

Ben Jacobs at Daily Download explicitly calls Gore a sell-out (via Howard Kurtz):

The left wing television network founded by Al Gore has been bought by Al Jazeera English to provide the foundation of a new network to be called Al Jazeera America. It marks the failure of Gore’s dream of putting together a left-wing television behemoth to rival Fox News on the right—a dream itself, which was born out of the ashes of Current’s failure to survive solely on user-submitted video. It also marks a strange moment in American history as well. Gore, a man who was almost President of the United States, is now selling out to the Emir of Qatar.

The reasons for Current TV’s failure are quite obvious. It wasn’t any good. The network featured liberal talking heads bloviating without the benefit of having any reporting capacity. Although the network drew some viewers after it hired Keith Olbermann, that didn’t last once Olbermann managed to get himself fired after less than a year. This left Current relying on a television lineup of former elected officials like Eliot Spitzer and Jennifer Granholm while televising liberal talk radio shows in the morning. Needless to say, it didn’t draw many viewers. After all, if you were that desperate for a televised liberal talk show, MSNBC was available and had much higher production values, better guests not to mention a legitimate news organization attached to it.

The one asset Current did have was that it was available in 4o million homes. That’s why Al Jazeera purchased it. The pan-Arab television network had consistently failed to be placed on cable systems in the U.S. because it was viewed as too controversial. By purchasing Current, it gets around this and is instantly available on cable and satellite systems across the country.

I suspect that most viewers won’t even notice the change.

Update: I missed this story earlier, but Gore’s arm-twisting apparently didn’t sell with Time Warner, one of the nation’s largest cable distributors:

Time Warner Cable pulled the plug on Current TV just hours after news of the cable channel’s sale to Al Jazeera became official.

“This channel is no longer available on Time Warner Cable,” read an on-screen message where Current TV used to be found. …

The Time Warner Cable spokesman would not comment on politics when reached by The Huffington Post, but said via email that “we do have an agreement with [Al Jazeera English], though we have no plans to launch it at this time.”

Al Jazeera America will be separate from Al Jazeera English, although roughly 40 percent of the new network’s programming is expected to come from the English-language channel, which is based in Doha, Qatar.

It’s still available on Comcast, as I confirmed a few moments ago.

Update II: Looks like the criticism coming at Time Warner from the Left has them thinking twice about dropping the channel — or at least interested in making it look like they’re open to changing their minds:

Critics of the distributor’s decision didn’t hold back, either, calling it cowardly, shameful and just plain dumb. On Twitter and Facebook, many people assumed that Time Warner Cable was expressing corporate opposition to Al Jazeera, the pan-Arab news giant, by taking Current off its cable systems in the United States.

But executives at the cable company said the channel wasn’t removed for political reasons. It had more to do, they said, with Current’s low ratings and its contract, which had a “change of ownership” clause that allowed it to be terminated. Time Warner Cable, which has 12 million subscribers, enough to make it the second-largest cable company in the country, has taken a hard line against low-rated channels.

That said, Time Warner Cable doesn’t want to be seen as outwardly hostile to Al Jazeera, especially at a time when other major distributors are keeping Current on their cable systems. (DirecTV, Dish Network, Verizon, and AT&T were among the distributors that consented to the takeover of Current.) Al Jazeera plans to replace Current with a channel, potentially called Al Jazeera America, that incorporates new programming from the United States and currrent programming from its headquarters in Qatar.

On Thursday afternoon, as complaints continued, Time Warner Cable issued a statement that opened the door to carrying the channel in the future. “We are keeping an open mind, and as the service develops, we will evaluate whether it makes sense, for our customers, to launch the network,” the statement read.

Don’t expect anything to change soon, though:

Time Warner Cable noted that it had what is called a “hunting license” in the television industry: an option to carry Al Jazeera’s current English-language channel if it so chooses. To date, it hasn’t acted on that option. Time Warner Cable and other major distributors have been reluctant to carry Al Jazeera English, in part because they feel there isn’t adequate demand for the channel from their customers. They also resent that the channel is streamed free over the Internet.

To paraphrase an old adage, why buy the cow when she’s giving the milk away for free?

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Networks like Current (and CNN, and Fox News, and ESPN, and the Weather Channel, and most of the other ones) make their money by charging per-subscriber fees to the cable system operators. (If your cable system wants to carry ESPN, they might have to pay ESPN $5 per month per cable subscriber. And every cable system wants to carry ESPN.)

But whatever a cable system was paying Current, it was probably too much, since hardly anyone was watching. And if Al Jazeera is giving its programming away for free online, there’s no incentive for Time Warner to pay per-subscriber fees for that.

If AJ were willing to give Time Warner its programming for free, or even pay Time Warner to carry their channel (like a home shopping channel might do), I’m sure they could get back on the cable system in no time.

J.S.K. on January 4, 2013 at 3:39 PM

I should probably note that most cable networks also make some money from national advertising — so it could theoretically be worth a cable network’s while to offer its programming to cable system operators free, in hopes of increasing its audience so it can sell more advertising.

J.S.K. on January 4, 2013 at 3:41 PM

Isn’t this pretty much what Jonah Goldberg wrote about in Liberal Fascism…that the views of Al Qaida and AJ were WAY closer to the left than the right?

Darin on January 4, 2013 at 3:46 PM

Sincerely doubt that AJ could front up two presenters more execrable than Ed Schultz or Sean Hannitty (who worked in construction btw).

CorporatePiggy on January 4, 2013 at 4:03 PM

Oh noes! What will happen to The Young Jerks?

Galtian on January 4, 2013 at 4:20 PM

What is that “cable TV” thing that everyone is talking about?

Archivarix on January 4, 2013 at 11:31 AM

Apparently there are people still stuck in the 80’s, who actually pay for TV, 99% of which they’d never watch.

Oh well. Until they figure out there’s a whole world of TV available on the internet (which Al Gore took the initiative in creating btw) I guess we’ll have to continue reading stories dealing with the drama of which channels of crap are available and which are not, all for the steal of $80+ per month.

MNHawk on January 4, 2013 at 4:32 PM

My chat minutes ago with Comcast:

analyst Ivy Rose has entered room

Ivy Rose: Hello Akzed, Thank you for contacting Comcast Live Chat Support. My name is Ivy Rose. Please give me one moment to review your information.

Akzed: My Issue: Comcast must not carry Al Jazeera in basic cable since it bought Current TV.

Ivy Rose: I hope your day is doing great! I am looking forward to help you.

Akzed: To whom do I complain about this?

Akzed: I’m not complaining about you, but about carrying Al Jazzera!

Ivy Rose: Oh!

Ivy Rose: I understand that. We will definitely look into this.

Ivy Rose: Since you reached Phone and Internet Technical support, I would be glad to connect you to our Cable analyst for further assistance, Akzed.

Akzed: thanks. The options were limited. I chose “other.”

analyst Ivy Rose has left room

Ivy Rose: You will see a message that says I have “left the room”; however, you will still be connected to the next available agent. Please stay online and connected to the chat for the next agent who will assist you as soon as possible. Thank you for contacting Comcast – we appreciate your continued business.

Ivy Rose: Good bye for now. Take care!

Akzed: Thanks

Ivy Rose: Please wait, while the problem is escalated to another analyst

analyst Ryan has entered room

Akzed: My Issue: Comcast must not carry Al Jazeera in basic cable since it bought Current TV.

Ryan: Thank you for taking the time to chat with us today.

Ryan: So you will not have to repeat yourself, can you allow me 2-3 minutes to review what has already been discussed please?

Akzed: No problemo.

Akzed: Al Jazeera is the mouthpiece of radical Islam. It is a propaganda tool, not news.

Ryan: Thank you for that information.

Ryan: Akzed, I have checked my resources.

Ryan: At this time Comcast does not carry the English version of Al Jazeera TV.

Akzed: If it’s part of basic cable, I’m paying for enemy propaganda.

Akzed: They bought Current TV which you do carry.

Akzed: They will be broadcasting in English on what is now Current TV.

Ryan: Let me check on that.

Akzed: Take it to the bank.

Ryan: Akzed, I have checked our channel lineup.

Akzed: Visit the link I sent above.

Ryan: Al Jazeera is not part of our channel lineup.

Ryan: You can go to this link to confirm that.


Akzed: You carry Current TV, which they bought and will be using to put enemy propaganda in our homes at our expense. It’s a fact. Current is now owned by Al Jazeera.

Akzed: Go here:

Ryan: Yes, Current TV is part of our Digital Preferred channel lineup.

Ryan: Akzed, with the diversity of our customers’ interests, we strive to provide a wide variety of quality channels that will interest all of our customers.
Then he quit the chat.

Akzed on January 4, 2013 at 6:52 PM

Stealth Jihad right’s very telling to say that Al-Jazeera is more inline with Current Tvs views than Glenn Becks views..

sadsushi on January 4, 2013 at 8:07 PM

Why is this considered a sell-out? More like bringing sunshine to the dark global warming underworld. The cap and tax scam has always been about keeping Middle East oil flowing and stopping America from developing it’s own resources. The oil sheiks and their bag man Al Gore are getting us to concentrate their efforts on inefficient, non-sensical “green” energy sources to keep us dependent.

Don’t believe me? Take a look at Gore’s father, Al Sr.. He did the exact same thing during the Cold War, pretending to be an agent of detente while lining his pockets with Armand Hammer’s Russian oil money. The Gore family has consistently sided with evil and practiced duplicity. Why is anyone surprised?

miles on January 5, 2013 at 9:59 AM

Two points:

1. Al Gore has finally lowered himself to the point that the left can no longer deny he is nothing more than a shil of the worst kind (I would have said pimp, but that implies the presence of at least some morality, and we know that Gore is completely amoral)

2. A Trojan Horse comes in many shapes.

georgeofthedesert on January 6, 2013 at 3:40 PM