All eyes will be on the No. 2 cable company’s response to the channel that Al Jazeera plans to create from what’s left of Current TV: It could determine whether the Qatar-based news company’s surprising deal yesterday to buy Al Gore’s cable channel pays off. It certainly won’t if Al Jazeera America is just available in a little more than 40M homes — which is what Current has without Time Warner Cable‘s 12.1M subscribers. For now, TWC says that it’s “keeping an open mind” about Al Jazeera’s plans. That at least sounds more encouraging than TWC’s statement yesterday that its carriage agreement with Current “has been terminated” and it is “removing the service as quickly as possible” from its systems. The change of ownership was a bridge too far for TWC: It was already considering dropping Current due to its low ratings.
Al Jazeera presents other complications. TWC has a long-term so-called “hunting license” for the news operation’s English-language service — meaning that the cable company has an agreement that enables it to offer Al Jazeera English in some markets but not others. But the relationship has been cool. TWC execs didn’t appreciate the way Al Jazeera English two years ago forced its way on to the cable systems in New York: Al Jazeera subleased airtime for 23 hours a day on RISE, a digital subchannel for TV station WRNN that TWC picks up under the federal must-carry rules. Cable and satellite execs also soured on Al Jazeera when it began to live-stream its programming for free. Don’t be surprised if Al Jazeera changes course and launches a charm offensive to win operators’ hearts. Their carriage agreements provide a lot of leeway for them to drop Current if it becomes fundamentally different from the channel that they originally bought. That should be an easy case to make if a new owner changes the channel’s name and format.