News, not blather

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Jan 12, 2013

Arab TV network has the right to attract U.S. viewers

If you are in the satire or irony businesses, the announcement that Al Gore’s Current TV network is being sold to Al Jazeera and converted into “Al Jazeera America” is almost too good to be true.

The new network already derisively dubbed “Al Gorezeera” by the pundits will result in the Nobel Peace laureate and former vice president pocketing some $100 million as his share of the total $500 million shelled out by the Emir of Qatar (pronounced “gutter”) who owns Al Jazeera, a cable network that has operated in the United States for many years without gaining carriage on any major U.S. cable providers.

Gore failed in a furious campaign to close the transaction in 2012 rather than 2013, because his staggering profit will now be taxed at the new capital gains rate of 20 percent, up from 15 percent, as a result of the Jan. 1 tax deal between President Barack Obama and Congress.

Poor Al will still land safely in the top one-hundredth of the 1 percent by selling a network that was available for viewing to upward of 60 million American homes but only drew 42,000 prime-time actual viewers on an average night. That intimate group watched shows hosted by Eliot Spitzer, Joy Behar and the exceedingly cute former Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm. OK, Joy and Eliot are cute too.

Al Jazeera’s plan to get more actual viewers in those 60 million U.S. homes suffered an immediate setback when Time Warner, the nation’s second-largest cable provider, invoked a change of control clause in its contract with Current TV and immediately dropped the network. Time Warner’s action is susceptible to various interpretations, patriotic and financially driven.

However, there is one perfectly clear motivation behind Time Warner’s action, which instantly eliminated the opportunity for 12 million American households to watch Eliot and company. It also deprives viewers of having a choice to see the possible evolution of Al Jazeera, once seen as a sheikh-owned mill for Jihadist and anti-American propaganda, into a major international source of objective hard news. Time Warner is not willing to let the history of Fox News repeat itself at its expense.

Back in the mid 1990s CNN, then a serious cable news network, ruled the world. Turner Enterprises, owned by CNN founder Ted Turner, was in the process of fully merging with its longtime business partner Time Warner. When asked about the prospects of CNN competing with Rupert Murdoch’s infant Fox News cable network, Turner truthfully but unwisely declared that CNN “would squish Rupert like a bug.” Ted’s new Time Warner partners wouldn’t carry Fox News on any Time Warner cable systems. Most importantly, they wouldn’t allow Fox News on the systems in New York City and Los Angeles. Without carriage in just one, let alone both, of America’s two crucial and essential news centers, a cable network is indeed a dead bug.

Murdoch and Fox News head Roger Ailes hired some antitrust lawyers, I among them, who sued Time Warner and Turner for using their cable system monopolies to destroy competitors of Time Warner/CNN. Time Warner quickly surrendered, perhaps thinking that the nascent Fox News, which at the time had the kind of tiny audience that Current TV now has, would never succeed, even if it was available to homes in Time Warner Cable systems.

The rest is history, as Fox News ate Time Warner’s lunch and supplanted CNN as America’s most popular cable news channel. In 2012, Fox was first among cable news channels for the 11th straight year. Its viewership exceeded No. 2 MSNBC and No. 3 CNN combined.

There are some positive signs that Al Jazeera America may be able to overcome its propagandistic past to become a major source of hard and objective news. It won high praise from Sen. John McCain and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton for its objective coverage of the Arab Spring and more recently for its reports about suppression of revolutionary movements in Arab countries. And while Al Jazeera’s ownership still raises disturbing questions as it seeks a major audience in American homes, hard news on cable is something we really need — not partisanship, sensationalism and gossip.

Al Jazeera America has the right to fight for and win American viewers and not be blocked because a cable monopolist wants to give an unfair preference to its own so-called “news” channel.

Lloyd Constantine is a lawyer in Manhattan. He was counsel for Fox News in the antitrust case against Time Warner mentioned in this article and has represented other parties against Time Warner in various other lawsuits.



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