A minute into Gore’s presentation, Murdoch put up his palm.
“Wait a second, Al,” Murdoch said. “You guys are here because you want to know if you buy NWI whether I’ll kick you off. I can assure you we are not going to do that.”
On the spot, Murdoch agreed to a ten-year extension. Over ten years, it amounted to a “gift” of about $200 million, as DirecTV’s execs later said.
On the strength of Murdoch’s commitment, Gore and Hyatt raised $75 million—mostly from wealthy Democrats like Ron Burkle and Richard Blum, Senator Dianne Feinstein’s husband—and bought NWI. “We thought we were going to change the world,” says Hyatt.
The world indeed changed. But Gore and Hyatt didn’t change it. Gore was Current TV’s only real asset. As chairman, he served as a strategic thinker, which suited him. But in business, the role of a person of Gore’s stature is to open doors—his “convening power,” as one associate explained.
Current’s user-generated programming never gained traction. “We overestimated the volume of high-quality material that could be made by people with consumer video cameras,” Gore explains politely. (Also, Current at first refused to schedule shows. Viewers didn’t know what they’d get when they tuned in.)
Still, Current’s revenues increased every year—as long as Gore and Hyatt signed up distributors, they earned money. (And it was often easier to negotiate a deal with Al Gore’s network than risk negative publicity.) Current eventually reached up to 70 million homes worldwide, usually at around $1.20 per home per year.
The problem was that Current rarely notched more than 40,000 actual viewers, even in prime time, and eventually distributors got impatient. Current felt pressure for another reason: The station was irrelevant. “You’re not having an impact if you don’t have an audience,” notes Hyatt. Gore complained that his blog had more impact than his TV station. So, in 2009, Current shifted to “more appropriate content,” as Hyatt puts it, playing to its strength. In 2011, it recruited Keith Olbermann, who’d recently left MSNBC, paying him a reported $10 million a year, roughly 8 percent of the channel’s annual revenue at the time. “We both knew the same thing about him,” says Hyatt. “He had a great show on MSNBC.” They’d been told he had a big ego and chafed at authority. Hyatt ignored the warning: “I’m going to be his friend and partner,” he says he thought. That illusion didn’t last long. Within a short time, Olbermann reportedly wouldn’t take Gore’s phone calls.
Olbermann’s presence led to an initial ratings spike, but it didn’t last. It did, though, get attention from other quarters. Murdoch controls BSkyB in England and SkyItalia, both of which unceremoniously dropped Current after Olbermann signed. “There is no doubt whatsoever that that’s what resulted in the cancellation,” Gore tells me. The irony is that Olbermann was soon shown the door, replaced by Eliot Spitzer. Gore, too, stepped in. During the 2012 election season, he even anchored some coverage, and some argued for him to do more. But for a man who had a Nobel Prize, being a talking head on a liberal channel—even if he owns it—is not great for the Gore brand. And without Olbermann or Gore, the game was over for Current TV.
In 2012, Hyatt and Gore looked to sell Current; its worth was estimated at $450 million by analysts. The only other possibility was to raise hundreds of millions of dollars to create a first-class news organization. That meant surrendering control—“It was our network, and we could do what we wanted,” says Hyatt. “We weren’t going to change that.”
An investment banker suggested approaching Al-Jazeera, the Arab news network funded by Qatar. Hyatt initially dismissed the company out of hand, as did Gore—they associated it with Islamic propaganda. But Al-Jazeera offered several advantages, not least of which was that the ambitious network had bottomless funds. “At Al-Jazeera, making money isn’t what we worry about,” one of Current’s executives was told.
For Al-Jazeera, Current offered a rare opportunity. The organization was already the world’s largest news-gathering operation, and one of a very few that were expanding, but it had been unable to gain a foothold in the U.S. TV market, crucial for a network with global ambitions.
Hyatt decided to rethink his first reaction. He visited Al-Jazeera’s impressive headquarters in Doha. “I was there three seconds, and I saw what you can do if you have the resources,” which Current would never have. “It was an obvious decision to sell.” The financial incentives were high: The Al-Jazeera deal was worth $784 million, according to Privco, a firm that analyzes private companies.
For Gore, publicity about the deal came at an inopportune time. He was on a book tour for The Future and thus accessible. He defended Al-Jazeera as a reputable, award-winning news source that would broaden the dialogue in the U.S., as Current had tried to do. He argued that Al-Jazeera covered the environment better than any American network. But Gore looked greedy taking money from oil-rich Qatar, the very despoilers he crusaded against, a point made by Jon Stewart and Letterman as well as by Fox. But ideological consistency has never been one of Al Gore’s hobgoblins, for better or worse. And one benefit of having endured what Gore has endured is that he has a very thick skin. “When you’ve had the worst thing happen to you, who cares?” says Eskew.