Murdoch-Gore war unplugs Current

Options are abound as net searches for new home

MILAN — Summer has arrived in Italy, but it’s cold war on the smallscreen as Al Gore’s Current TV counts down its final weeks on Rupert Murdoch’s Sky Italia, which is dropping the net in a spat over carriage fees.

Current is looking for a new home, and says all options are on the table. It’s in talks with a number of potential partners.

Logical fits could be Carlo De Benedetti’s Editoriale l’Epresso or Telecom Italia, which owns left-wing broadcaster La7.

The problem is wrapping up a deal and technical tweaks in time to maintain the net’s momentum, with July 31 looming as Current’s last day on the satellite pay TV platform after what had appeared to be a harmonious three-year relationship.

Tough talk is universal in heated carriage battles — Time Warner and Disney had a doozey last fall. But the barbs here grew so poisonous that the two sides have permanently halted negotiations.

It’s not the size of the market that makes the drama — Current’s viewers number in the thousands; Sky Italia has just under five million subscribers. The feud is transatlantic, the characters larger than life and the claims extravagant.

Gore accuses Murdoch of seeking world domination through the media. He’s been charging in interviews in the U.K. and Italy for the past month that Murdoch’s News Corp. ordered Sky Italia to drop Current after its flagship U.S. channel hired anti-Fox commentator Keith Olbermann. Gore says Sky announced plans to pull the channel suddenly, without notice or discussion.

“The larger question, much bigger than Current, is whether or not our democracies can thrive in the age of television, when the increasing concentration of ownership by large corporate conglomerates with an ideological agenda and a quest for power, leads them to control access to the public square, to the civic commons, to the conversation of democracy,” Gore said in a statement.

Sky Italia head Tom Mockridge slams the former U.S. vice president and Nobel Prize laureate for waging a self-serving smear campaign to squeeze out a higher license fee.

Mockridge says he had never heard of Olbermann (“I had to Google the name to find out who he was,” he told BBC Radio) or taken orders from New York.

He says Sky Italia proposed a renewal contract in line with Current’s economics that was rejected outright. He said Current demanded double its previous fees despite a drop in viewers.

“This is all about money. We wouldn’t be here today if we had agreed to give them the big increase that they wanted,” Mockridge told the BBC.

The two are basically calling each other liars. Gore says Current’s ratings surged 550% year on year in primetime. Sky Italia says the ratings were down 40%. Each side claims the other’s numbers are distorted or fabricated.

Mockridge points out that the original three-year contract carried a two-year extension if the channel hit a 4,500-viewer average in a 24-hour period. “If it had achieved that number, it would have automatically renewed and, again, we wouldn’t have been sitting here having this conversation.”

Gore flew to Italy late last month to press his case on national television and launch “Save Current” campaigns on Facebook and Twitter.

Current said its viewers are passionate and that it’s received 3,000 emails of support.

Sky Italia got enough flack from its own subscribers to issue a statement and attempt to prove it negotiated in good faith by including the text of the letter it said was its last and best offer to Current, which the network rejected.

Gore called the letter a sham, sent late and only after Sky realized Current was going to “blow the whistle.”

Right or wrong, the dispute has put Sky Italia in an awkward and rather anomalous position. Sky has always been the outsider in Italy. It’s an alternative to Mediaset, controlled by Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, and to pubcaster RAI, which Berlusconi also holds sway over through his position as head of government.

Sky Italia has been blocked and stymied at every turn — punitive taxes, harsh laws, pulled advertising. But it has survived and thrived, cheered on by the public.

Murdoch may be a feared 800-pound gorilla elsewhere, but in Italy, Sky is the good guy and the underdog.

Current, which made its reputation with hard-hitting documentaries and investigative shows, was in sync with the kind of independent-minded programming Sky Italia touted. For Current, Sky was the ideal home, the partner that understood and appreciated it.

Not any more.