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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