New York Times media reporter Brian Stelter has really owned the story of Current TV being acquired by Al Jazeera in order to create a new Al Jazeera America channel. Yesterday he posted multiple reported pieces on the story, answering some of the most intriguing questions many had about the deal.
One aspect of the story that prompted a lot of commentary and speculation was that Time Warner Cable immediately dropped Current as soon as Al Jazeera acquired it. Many speculated that the hasty decision was made due to the perceived political orientation of the new Al Jazeera America channel. Others speculated that it was purely a business decision.
Time Warner Cable had a clause in its contract with Current that allowed it to drop the channel if there was any change in ownership and was simply exercising that option. After all, Time Warner Cable had threatened to drop the channel before due to the fact that it got low ratings but charged the cable company an unusually high fee per subscriber. The terse statement the company released on Wednesday night didn’t shed much light on their reasoning.
It turns out that those who thought the decision was just business were probably more correct. According to a piece Stelter posted yesterday afternoon, “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.”
After receiving so many complaints about their decision to drop Current, both online and off, Time Warner Cable released another official statement Thursday afternoon saying they were keeping an open mind about possibly carrying the new Al Jazeera America 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,” said the statement.
Meanwhile, the Time Warner Executives whom Stelter spoke to also noted that they have what they term a “hunting license,” meaning an agreement that would allow them to carry Al Jazeera’s current English Language Channel, Al Jazeera English, if they choose. Al Jazeera English is already available in New York City, Washington DC, and other Time Warner Cable markets in different complicated agreements where the channel sublets and shares space with another pre-existing channel, but doesn’t get its own channel on the cable dial. These arrangements are described in greater detail in this Stelter story from August, 2011.
Ultimately, at the end of Stelter’s post yesterday afternoon he speculates that Time Warner Cable was most likely simply hoping to eventually negotiate a new contract with Al Jazeera America with terms that are more favorable to the cable company than the pre-existing agreement they had with Current TV. Curiously, other factions within the New York Times seem to still be arguing that the decision to drop Current once ownership changed was primarily political. As Tom McGeveran points out in a post on Capital New York, the excellent website for which he is the editor, an official editorial in this morning’s Times chastised Time Warner Cable for their decision, seeming to assume that the move was made purely due to concerns with the ownership of Al Jazeera (the government of Qatar) and largely ignoring the business context.
If you’re wondering what’s going on with the hosts of Current’s, um, current line-up of low-rated political talk shows, such as Eliot Spitzer, Jennifer Granholm, and Joy Behar, Stelter has written a post on that too. Apparently Granholm was already on the way out before the sale was announced (though who knows if she somehow caught wind of the upcoming sale and this influenced her decision?) and had only signed a contract to continue doing her show “The War Room” for three months after the November election. She posted on facebook Wednesday night that “We’ll continue to broadcast The War Room for the next few weeks through the transition, but after that I’ll be going back to teaching, speaking and other things.”
For their parts, Mr. Spitzer and Ms. Behar have not yet publicly commented on what their future plans are or if they would stay for the transition to new ownership if they were asked. Stelter speculates that since most people presume that Mr. Spitzer eventually wants to run for elected office again, he probably won’t risk staying on and being associated with Al Jazeera. Cenk Uygur, who started his excellent talk show “The Young Turks” on the internet before moving it to Current, said on twitter that he will continue doing the Current TV version of the show for at least three months but that the online version “never stops” because it’s “Too strong.”
Finally, last night Stelter published a fascinating blog post which delved into perhaps the most intriguing aspect of this whole saga, to what extent Al Gore himself was actually involved in the stewardship of the channel and of this deal, delving into some of the more eyebrow-raising details such as Current TV’s reported $500 million sale price and the bizarre moment when Glenn Beck approached Mr. Gore about buying the network. In essence, the narrative that emerges is that Gore expended plenty of political capital and old-fashioned arm twisting to improbably turn the low-rated cable network into a huge cash cow. He took a hard nosed approach to negotiations with cable and satellite providers, allowing him to get the channel into a huge number of homes for a new, untested network and more importantly to garner huge per subscriber fees from the cable and satellite providers. This allowed Current to post annual revenues of around $100 million even though its audience was tiny.
Gore then applied similar strong arm tactics to negotiations with cable and satellite companies, convincing them to accept the new Al Jazeera America channel, succeeding with all but Time Warner Cable. If the widespread reports that Al Jazeera paid $500 million to acquire Current are accurate, then Gore received $100 million for this 20% ownership stake, doubling his already considerable personal fortune overnight for doing what in essence had been only a part-time job for the former Vice President over the last 7-8 years. At any rate, he’s likely far more wealthy than he would have been if he’d actually become President.