For more than a decade after his run for the presidency in 2000, Al Gore made light of his ambitions for America’s highest elective office, saying to audiences around the world (including one in Johannesburg), “Hello, my name is Al Gore and I used to be the next president of the United States.” Gore would join right in with the hearty laughter, even if, deep down inside, you knew it still had to hurt. The controversial sale of his socially conscious cable channel Current TV to Al Jazeera certainly offers financial balm, writes J BROOKS SPECTOR.
But after his thwarted presidential effort at the hands of George W Bush (and five members of the US Supreme Court), other things did come along in Al Gore’s life. There was, for example, that Oscar and half of a Nobel Peace Prize. The film, An Inconvenient Truth, became its own international cottage industry – spreading the gospel of climate change and what every citizen of the world must do to prevent turning New York City, Shanghai and London into large-scale versions of a subtropical Venice.
Still, everything was not perfect for Gore, of course. There were the usual ups and downs of late mid-life angst. His marriage to Tipper Gore ended, he ballooned in weight, grew a beard, lost much of the weight, and then started a socially conscious TV cable channel.
This cable channel, Current TV, never really found its footing with viewers – estimates are that only about 40,000 people have actually been watching its programmes. When it began, it was loaded with worthy economic/environmental/ecological/educational themes. When that failed to ignite viewer excitement, the managers added more politics with big guns like Keith Olbermann (previously at MSNBC) and Eliot Spitzer (yes the governor of New York State who had had to resign after, let us say, a very poor choice of intimate friends). But still, the audience meter barely budged. Even some of these choices backfired off-screen. Olbermann’s tenure on Current TV lasted less than a year before there was some serious bad blood and expensive, vicious lawsuits.
But then, the most unlikely possible “knight on a white horse” rode into the world of Gore and his fellow investors – Al Jazeera TV. Al Jazeera TV. For many people around the world, since its founding in 1996, Al Jazeera is an exciting, gutsy satellite TV international news channel. Like CCTV and Russia Today, Al Jazeera is an increasingly influential part of the global communications clamour. For many of its viewers, in fact, it has been offering a welcome alternative interpretive window onto the events of the world, untainted by American or British views (even if many of its actual broadcasters are).
Nevertheless, Al Jazeera is not been universally loved either. The Economist’s recent profile of the station stressed, “Al Jazeera, the Qatari satellite television network that revolutionised Arab news coverage a decade ago, has long defied its critics. No other network has seen its bureaus both bombed by the American air force and torched by Egyptian revolutionaries. None has been damned by so diverse a range of governments and politicians.”
“Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi blasted it for fomenting revolution. Syria’s embattled regime accused it of building Potemkin sets of Syrian cities to stage fake anti-government protests. And Al Jazeera was recently described on Fox, a rival American news network, as an ‘anti-American terror mouthpiece’… the network’s unfair notoriety as a supposed promoter of jihadism has largely shut its channels out of the broader American market. But its recent purchase of Current TV, a cable network partly owned by Al Gore, a former vice-president, for a reported $500 million may extend its footprint to 40 million American households, paving the way to launch another dedicated local service, Al Jazeera America.”
Unlike the circumstances in most other big, developed television viewership markets, beyond those who continue to rely on free-to-air broadcast television (principally major commercial networks, and less so the Public Broadcast System and various independent stations), most Americans get their television via hardwired cable into their homes. Cable systems now reach a majority of American homes – but, importantly – these cable connections reach homes through a whole range of cable provider communications companies like Comcast. Meanwhile, content comes from a collection of other companies like Time Warner and ESPN (the sports people), some of which are also part of the cable companies. In response, the usual joke from cynics is something like, “Hmm, 500 channels on cable and not a thing to watch” – unless you happen to enjoy cooking shows, endless repeats of Law and Order or Star Trek, old classic films and recent releases on premium pay channels, or now-ancient episodes of I Love Lucy – plus news and opinion channels like CNN, FoxNews, MSNBC, BBC America, and C-Span.
Up till now, Al Jazeera has barely managed to secure more than a bare toehold with a couple of cable systems in the New York City and Washington, DC areas. (Interestingly, State Department TV monitors are frequently tuned to this channel).
Generally, cable operators have been reluctant to be bowing to Arab-Moslem-fundamentalist-terrorist-bombthrower-anarchist-airplane crasher-propaganda – or, at the minimum, accused of doing that by more opportunistic politicians. But, Current TV, while nobody much seemed interested in watching it or caring much about it, was on the roster of cable channel offerings from cable systems all across the country. Ker-ching! Or at least the possibility of it.
And so, a deal was struck. Gore and his partners would sell Current TV to Al Jazeera and then Al Jazeera would build on Current TV’s slots across the nation’s cable networks to ramp up its viewership, with a specially developed programme oeuvre, just for American viewers. While Current TV never really had the resources to be a major player like CNN or FoxNews; given the very, very deep pockets of Al Jazeera’s sponsor, the Emir of Qatar, if that station really wanted to get into the vast and commercially lucrative American market, money troubles will not be the thing that stops it.
Qatar isn’t oil rich to be sure, but it is practically floating on a sea of natural gas – and natural gas is the go-to fuel of the future. It is less polluting, it is relatively easy to ship and store, and it has less expense associated with converting the raw material into actual fuel in contrast to petroleum or coal.
The halls of media houses in the US have not exactly been overflowing with good cheer about this purchase – especially from putative competitors. Howard Kurtz, host of CNN’s Reliable Sources, for example, said on air after the deal became public: “So Al Gore starts a liberal cable network, which turns into a complete and utter flop, then sells it to a Middle East potentate in a deal that will bring him an estimated $70 million. Is America a great country or what?
“There is something highly unusual – OK, just plain weird –- about a former vice president of the United States doing this deal with the emir of Qatar, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani. Al Jazeera, owned by said emir’s government, is trying to buy its way into the American television market by purchasing Current TV for a half billion dollars.”
“The only thing stranger would be if Gore had sold Current to Glenn Beck – oh wait, Beck did try to buy it and was told no way within 15 minutes.” Now that would really have been something if that had happened!
Other stumbling blocks have already arisen as well. The Time Warner cable company announced it would drop Current TV for business reasons, although it has left the door open to transmitting an Al-Jazeera America channel later on, it said, if there was a demand for it. The company’s spokesperson, Maureen Huff said, “As a service develops, we will evaluate whether it makes sense for our customers to launch the network.”
Once rebranded, the former Current TV channel big cable outfits such as DirecTV, Dish Network, Comcast Corp., AT&T U-verse, and Verizon FiOS will carry the channel. That would send the signal to about 50 million potential viewers, versus the fewer than the 5 million that can watch Al Jazeera English now. Current TV had been reaching about 60 million homes (even if most of them never looked at it.) The deal also means around a $70 million payoff each to Gore and his cofounder, Joel Hyatt, who each had 20% stakes in Current TV. (Comcast had a somewhat less than 10% share.)
While the deal has already attracted more than its share of critics, some commentators such as Orville Schell, the former dean of journalism at University of California, Berkeley (who was on Current TV’s board), insisted the sale was justified. “The reason to sell to Al-Jazeera is that they wished to buy it. Whatever one may think about them, they have become a serious broadcaster that covers the world in an impressively comprehensive way. Time Warner probably dropped the contract because they fear American prejudice.”
Although nothing would make Al Jazeera’s broadcasts illegal in the US, taken together, these stories do make politicians and others nervous about it. While there are no rules about foreign ownership of cable channels, per se, unlike television stations, operators are reliant on various governmental licensing regimens to allow them to operate their commercially profitable franchises.
Despite Schell’s explanation, nevertheless, once word broke that Gore and company were selling their Current TV interests to Al Jazeera – at a tidy profit, no less – the cry went up from some quarters almost immediately. How dare Gore make money out of a deal with a rich-as-Croesus Arab sheik. The howling only got worse as it became known the owners of Current TV were trying hard (albeit unsuccessfully in the end) to finish the deal before the close of 2012, to take advantage of the lower tax rates then applicable, rather than somewhat higher ones in 2013.
Of course, there is no guarantee that millions of Americans will actually watch Current TV/Al Jazeera TV once they can see it on their cable TV setup. There is a well-founded skepticism by some American politicians that Al Jazeera is more than a little soft on authoritarian dynastic rulers in other Persian Gulf states like Bahrain; that it pulls its punches on human rights abuses in those places; that its staffers are sometimes subject to political pressures from on high over such things; and the fact that it flighted statements from Osama bin Laden and company after 9/11.
In the Arab world, the network boosted the efforts of Qatari-backed rebel fighters in Libya and Syria and of the Qatar-aligned Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. However, the fact that it has tended to ignore human-rights abuses by those same rebels, or give much support the uprising by the Shia majority in Bahrain has lessened its popularity with some Arab audiences as well.
Al Jazeera is also being pushed by increasing competition nearer to home in the fast-moving Middle East world. As The Economist also noted, despite its near-bottomless reservoir of cash, “Al Jazeera has been steadily losing ground nearer home. Numerous pan-Arab rivals sprouted to grab a viewing share with a copycat mix of flashy graphics, daring reportage and sizzling debate. And global media firms such as Bloomberg, News Corporation and CNN have pushed into the Arab market. Ironically, the Arab revolutions that Al Jazeera gleefully promoted have produced a challenge to its dominance. Audiences in countries such as Egypt, Iraq and Tunisia are now gripped by fast-moving local events more ably covered by independent national channels that have proliferated rapidly in a freer political climate, along with internet-borne social media.”
There is also some dissension within its ranks. Star correspondents in Beirut, Berlin, Cairo, Moscow and Paris have left it in recent years. And its staff has publicly protested being told to promote speeches by the Qatari emir. Such things are not going to encourage an eager embrace by American audiences. University of Pennsylvania communications professor Marwan Kraidy, an expert on Arab media, has explained that Al-Jazeera needs to overcome perceptions among some Americans that it is a “toxic brand.”
Of course, this whole bet might really pay off for Al Jazeera. American TV watchers, and especially news junkies, might well decide an Al Jazeera America news programme was just the thing to get yet another view beyond the usual suspects. If that happens, the lucrative advertising market the US represents could turn their gamble into a profitable venture.
Success in America would also mutually reinforce Al Jazeera’s expansion globally, even if it also encourages more energy and investment by other international broadcasters into their own footholds in the American market. Moreover, if there was a big international story it could jump on hard and fast, American viewers might well tune in to it the way they did with CNN and its coverage of events leading up to the first Gulf War. Such an effort could duplicate Al Jazeera’s success in covering the Arab Spring, says Poynter Institute broadcasting and online media professor Al Thompkins. “There will be an opportunity for them to have some play in a world story that will unfold, and we’ll see if they can step into it and provide something no one else can. It only takes a few moments of brilliant work and people start noticing you,” Thompkins says.
Gore and company’s bet to sell Current TV and take their profit has paid off handsomely for him, even if, by this sale, Gore has handed FoxNews TV’s hate-casters yet another weapon to use on him publicly. But maybe Gore gets the last laugh – plus the cash. While he has never really expected a good word from Rupert Murdock’s shock troops anyway, the story gave comic-commentator Jon Stewart a field day as well.
In discussing this sale, Stewart dissected FoxNews’ over-the-top, horror-struck reactions by pointing to Rupert Murdoch’s (the owner of FoxNews) own ties to yet another problematic Middle East news outlet. In any case, if it all works out as everyone plans, American television viewers may be the ultimate beneficiaries as they get to see the world, and how others see them, through yet another set of eyes. And that wouldn’t be such a bad thing. DM
Photo: Former U.S. Vice President Al Gore speaks during the Skybridge Alternatives (SALT) Conference in Las Vegas, Nevada May, 9, 2012. REUTERS/Steve Marcus
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