Al Gore’s sale of CurrentTV faces backlash in court

Just two months after selling his television network, Al Gore is back on the defensive.

In January, Gore sold his network, CurrentTV, for $500 million to Qatari-based Al Jazeera, and immediately faced criticism for selling to a Middle Eastern outlet.  Some expressed worry about political motivations Al Jazeera might have.  Others noted the network has been funded by “oil money,” a contrast to CurrentTV’s pro-environment stance.  

Gore, who is reported to get between $70 million and $100 million from the deal, has taken to the media to try to win over the court of public opinion. “I think Al Jazeera has obviously long since established itself as a really distinguished and effective newsgathering organization,” he said on NBC’s Today Show.  Gore also declared in a speech that Al Jazeera was an “honest-to-goodness news channel” that will make American cable TV better.

But the former vice president is once again on defense – this time in the court of law where a lawsuit threatens to expose the backroom discussions that led to the deal as well as the American suitors who felt they were spurned in their bids for CurrentTV.

A former ally is suing Gore, claiming he came up with the idea of selling the network to Al Jazeera.  Now he wants the credit – and part of the profits – claiming that Gore and Gore’s business partners went behind his back to complete the sale.  

John Terenzio, a “media consultant, executive and producer of television programming” according to court documents, is suing for $5 million, claiming he first conceived of selling CurrentTV to Al Jazeera.  The lawsuit has been filled in San Francisco, where Gore’s network is currently headquartered.

“CurrentTV’s vast distribution network would provide a unique and instantaneous gateway into the American market for Al Jazeera and its Qatari owners,” the court records said.

Terenzio claims that he and business partner Richard Nanula approached Richard Blum, a member of CurrentTV’s board of directors and the husband of Sen. Dianne Feinstein, with the idea for the sale.  A July 2012 meeting was arranged, and Terenzio put together a presentation on how the sale could be done, taking into consideration how the deal might be perceived by the public-at-large.

“Terenzio’s PowerPoint presentation included a step-by-step approach for making the sale of the liberal media outlet to Al Jazeera palatable to U.S. lawmakers, pro-Israel factions, cable operators and, most importantly, the American public,” court documents said.

For all his hard work, Terenzio “would be compensated if CurrentTV moved forward with Terenzio’s idea for the sale of CurrentTV to Al Jazeera,” the suit alleges.

And his involvement wasn’t going to stop there.  Terenzio was supposed to head a team that would oversee the sale and transition of the network, as well as adapt Al Jazeera programing for American audiences, the suit says.

According to court documents filed by Terenzio, the idea was pitched to Gore, who adamantly refused “to sell his liberal, environmentally friendly network to the oil-rich Qataris who owned Al Jazeera.” 

So it no doubt came as a surprise to Terenzio when, on January 2, 2013, CurrentTV announced the sale to Al Jazeera without his knowledge.  The networks had even agreed to a new name: Al Jazeera America, a moniker Terenzio claims he pitched in his meeting with Blum.

Representatives for Gore and Terenzio could not be reached for comment.  Al Jazeera, meanwhile, has been keeping mum on the suit.

“By acquiring Current TV, Al Jazeera will significantly expand our existing distribution footprint in the U.S., as well as increase our newsgathering and reporting efforts in America,” said a statement from the network’s Director General Ahmed bin Jassim Al Thani.  “We look forward to working together with our new cable and satellite partners to serve our new audiences across the U.S.”

According to the statement, the acquisition of CurrentTV will double the number of Al Jazeera employees in the U.S. to around 300.  Demand is high, bin Jassim Al Thani said, as 40 percent of all online viewing of Al Jazeera English comes from the U.S.

“Our commitment to the voice of the voiceless, bringing stories from under-reported regions across the world and putting the human being at the center of our news agenda is at the heart of what we do,” he said.  “Everyone at Al Jazeera takes great pride in the independence, impartiality, professionalism and courage of our journalism. I look forward to bringing these standards to our new American audiences and working with our new colleagues at Current.”

Meanwhile, domestic criticism of the sale hasn’t died down.  Several rival television network owners have criticized what they perceive to be Gore’s single-mindedness about selling to Al Jazeera, going so far as to completely ignore offers from inside the U.S.  They weren’t placated when Gore said he has been “very critical of American television journalism,” at the Austin, Texas South-by-Southwest music and film festival March 9.

“I think that the addition of a very high-quality, 24-7 honest-to-goodness news channel that covers international news as well as national, that covers climate, that covers poverty, that cover issues that are ignored today, has the potential to be disruptive in a creative and positive way and raise the game for television journalism here in the United State of America,” he said.

Legally, it’s up to Gore and his associates who they wanted to sell the network to.  But that hasn’t stopped other network executives from expressing concerns that sound business deals may have been ignored in the rush to sale.

San Diego-based Herring Broadcasting, the owners of WealthTV which this month announced a new conservative cable news channel called One America News, told the Washington Guardian it tried to make a bid for CurrentTV but was rejected. One America’s president, Charles Herring, said Gore had every right to sell to Al Jazeera, but the decision to close a deal quickly may hurt the media landscape in the future.

“I firmly believe they have the right to do so, and I would defend their right to do so,” Herring said of the sale.  “What I find troublesome is that two U.S. owned, U.S. based cable networks were unable to get discussions going with CurrentTV, yet it was willing to entertain offers from a foreign network.”

The perception that several offers were ignored flies in the face of conventional business wisdom, Herring said.

“Generally you open it up to anybody and everybody that seems to be qualified,” he said.  “If I was a stockholder, I’d be upset…I’m afraid a quick sell for a high dollar amount was a bigger motivation than opening discussions up.”

And Al Jazeera’s acquisition will only add to the cacophony of cable stations competing for bandwidth and viewer’s attention, Herring said.

“Having healthy debate in the United States, having all points of views expressed is more healthy for this country and our democracy than having foreign owned, foreign government owned news media sources,” he said.

Conservative pundit Glenn Beck and his multi-media endeavor, The Blaze, also put in a bid for Gore’s network before the sale to Al Jazeera.

“When we found out that Current TV was going to go up for sale, it was rumored to be, what, $250 million is what they were asking, and I don’t have $250 million lying around, but we wanted access to 60 million households and so we discussed it and we thought we can somehow or another find $250 million, $300 million,” Beck said during a segment on his Blaze network.

The offer, Beck said, was rejected on ideological grounds.

“Our legacy is too important and there would quite frankly be too many people, too many friends that the vice president would have to explain why he’s selling to Glenn Beck,” the conservative host said, paraphrasing what he said was the response from CurrentTV representatives.

There is no doubt that Beck and Gore are on opposite ends of the political spectrum.  But Beck said he took exception to the fact that Gore didn’t seem willing to sell to the highest bidder, instead reserving the sale for Al Jazeera. 

“He didn’t sell to the highest bidder. We were not allowed to the table. He didn’t sell to the highest bidder,” Beck said.

The sale has already faced backlash by cable providers.  Time-Warner Cable, which is estimated to be the second largest cable provider in the country, dropped CurrentTV from it’s lineup shortly after the deal with Al Jazeera.

“Our agreement with Current has been terminated and we will no longer be carrying the service,” the provider said. “We are removing the service as quickly as possible.”

Company executives were quick to say they were not against Al Jazeera.  

“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.

Industry observers remarked that Time-Warner likely used the change in ownership as an opportunity to torpedo the historically low-rated CurrentTV.

Whether or not Al Jazeera will become popular with U.S. viewers remains to be seen.  Al Jazeera America is set to begin broadcasting this year, though an exact date has not been set.

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