by Chris Potter
Just weeks before the Nov. 6 elections, a local cable provider is offering its subscribers a special promotional offer: a free look at 2016: Obama's America, a film "documentary" which purports to show that President Obama hopes to undermine the United States from within.
Armstrong Utilities, the nation's 15th-largest cable provider, operates in five states, including suburban and rural parts of western Pennsylvania. And recently, its homepage began notifying viewers of a "Free Movie Special" — an on-demand screening of the film, which was in theaters only a few weeks ago.
While much on-demand content is free, subscribers tell City Paper — and an Armstrong executive confirms — that this is the first time the cable provider has offered such a deal for a recently released feature film.
2016 has become a hit among conservatives, but has drawn fire from fact-checkers who argue that its central thesis is logically flawed and lacks evidence. The film, for example, accuses Obama of being "weirdly sympathetic to Muslim jihadists," even as drone strikes and Special Forces operations have wiped out many terrorist leaders. And it suggests that Obama somehow inherited the beliefs of his father — who Obama by all accounts barely even knew.
Lefties may not be surprised to hear that the names of some Armstrong execs appear on donor rolls for Republican causes (though Mitt Romney is not among them). Jay and Dru Sedwick, the company's chairman and president, respectively, have given large-dollar sums to hardline Pennsylvania conservatives including Congressional candidate Keith Rothfus, Congressman Mike Kelly, Senator Pat Toomey, and Senate candidate Tom Smith. In addition, Dru Sedwick has given $80,000 to committees aligned with the Republican Party, while Jay Sedwick gave $700 to Tea Party hero Allen West, a Florida Congressman.(Other Butler-area donors with the last name "Sedwick" also made sizable contributions to the Republican Party, but I can't be sure of their connection to Armstrong.)
But Dave Wittmann, Armstrong's vice-president of marketing, says, "There is no agenda here."
2016, he says, is being offered as part of a promotion to attract more viewers to Armstrong's on-demand service. Armstrong has offered on-demand since 2006, and while most of that programming is free, Wittman says, pay-per-view content of new, hot films — "the same day they become available on DVD" — represents a potentially lucrative source of revenue. Offering free films like 2016 "is just one of many things we're going to promote" the service he says. Armstrong plans to offer a new film each month; Wittmann says the provider's next free feature will likely be a holiday-themed film.
Still, Obama 2016 is the first film in the promotional effort — "and this is why it's drawing some attention," Wittmann surmises. (He adds, however, that he's only spoken with one customer who had an objection.)
Obviously, choosing an election-themed film makes sense if you're looking for a movie that can generate some timely buzz — but one that won't mean sacrificing the revenue a cable provider could stand to earn from, say, a summer blockbuster. But given the passions surrounding this year's election, did Armstrong execs consider offering a less partisan film — or pairing Obama 2016 up with another film that argues for the other side? "I wasn't really privy to those discussions," Wittmann says.
In any case, there appears to be nothing legally untoward about what the cable company is doing.
Tara Malloy, the senior legal counsel at the Campaign Legal Center, says Armstrong's move is "unusual ... They seem to be subsidizing the distribution of the film, or at least taking a hit" in lost potential revenue.
Or maybe not. Wittmann won't discuss financial arrangements, but generally speaking, cable providers who sell "on-demand" feature films split revenues with the filmmaker. By offering the film for free to subscribers, Armstrong may be eating its share of the costs. Then again, it might not. Malloy points out that the famous Citizens United case — which overturned bans on much corporate political activity — started with a film that was being offered over pay-per-view cable: Hillary: the Movie. And in that case, she says, the distributor was willing to pay cable companies for carrying it.
But whatever the financial arrangements, Malloy says, Armstrong is likely well within its rights to air the film. Media companies enjoy broad exemption to the rules governing political advertising and other paid speech. And while Armstrong's focus is more on the distribution of media than the creation of it, the exemption applies to "any entity that could reasonably be considered a media entity."
"In a post-Citizens United world," Malloy says, "I don't think there's anything to prevent them from doing this."