White House Dinner ‘Party Crashers’: Help From The Inside?

Obama SalahisThe latest development in the saga of the polo-playing, dove-throwing socialites who crashed the first state dinner of the Obama administration is something that we suggested yesterday: Michaele and Tareq Salahi may have had help from the inside.

Gawker is reporting — with photo evidence — that the Salahis are “polo buddies” with an influential state dinner guest, Indian Ambassador Arun Singh. Whether it turns out to be this specific connection or another (they have a lot of powerful friends), it makes a lot more sense that they had a helping hand into the White House than that the Secret Service got conned by would-be reality show contestants.

As the NYT reported yesterday, Bravo has now confirmed that a TV crew for the upcoming “Real Housewives of DC” was indeed trailing the Salahis, who told the crew that they were invited to the dinner. The Salahis are set to appear on “Larry King Live” on Monday to tell their side of the story. Through a lawyer, they deny “crashing” the event, so look for them to explain how they were left off the guest list, but were added to the White House clearance list.

salahis_singhWhat struck me was the Secret Service’s response. When I talked to spokesman Ed Donovan yesterday, he was quick to accept responsibility for the incident, even though no investigation has been completed. (Secret Service director Mark Patterson told Politico that they were “deeply embarrassed” — especially since it’s been confirmed that the couple met the President and Mrs. Obama on the receiving line). Neither he nor the White House could confirm or deny that someone within the White House had interceded on the Salahis’ behalf, and both have pointed out repeatedly that the couple were subject to the same physical security measures as the other guests.

While it seems counter-intuitive that the Secret Service, already under fire for cutbacks, would take the blame for this if it wasn’t really their fault, the alternative is arguably worse. It’s fairly simple to mitigate a relatively harmless, isolated slip-up.

On the other hand, the idea that the vapid, privileged stars of a reality show could be waved through security and into the White House would not play well with recession-battered Americans (or with luminaries who couldn’t score an invite), and the security implications of the People’s House becoming the brass ring of D-list prankdom are also far-reaching.

The possibility that the Salahis were admitted at the request of a foreign diplomat is just gravy on top of the red meat.

What also amazes me is the credulity with which the media reported this story. As Gawker puts it, “the Salahis weren’t just some randos who showed up at the White House and schmoozed their way past the Secret Service with their fancy clothes.”

Yet that’s pretty much how it has been reported. Perhaps the pop culture appeal of the moxie-laden gadabout who skirts the velvet rope was too powerful a lure to resist.

More updates when we have them.

Photo from Gawker.com

How Do You Crash A White House State Dinner?

when_doves_barfAs we head into the news hell that is a long holiday weekend, you can be sure to learn more than you ever wanted to know about the White House Party Crashers, Tareq and Michaele Salahi. Of primary concern is how this pair of Chester Cheetah-level socialites managed to brazenly blow their way past the Secret Service and into the White House for the ultra-exclusive State Dinner in the first place. My expert opinion? They didn’t.

The Salahis, owners of the Oasis Winery and the America’s Cup of Polo, are rumored to be part of Bravo’s upcoming “Real Houeswives of DC” reality show. Actually, there are more than rumors. In September, the Salahis were spotted being trailed by a Bravo film crew, and Michaele Salahi’s makeup artist reported seeing a TV crew filming them as they prepared to crash the state dinner. They’ve got a flair for the dramatic, as their cheese-tastic wedding video shows.Yes, they’re throwing doves.

NBC’s Brian Williams also says he saw the couple’s SUV turned away at the East Gate, at which point they got, camera and makeup people in tow, and went to the pedestrian entrance. (video below)

I spoke with Secret Service spokesman Ed Donovan this morning, and he would only offer  that they had identified a checkpoint at which proper procedures were not followed, and that the incident would be investigated. He stressed that, no matter which checkpoint was the problem, “It’s on us.” He stressed, again, that the Salahis had been subjected to the same stringent physical checks (magnometer, x-rays, etc.) as the other guests.

A White House official tells me that the White House has called for a “full review of the incident” by Secret service.

The Secret Service isn’t saying which checkpoint was the problem, nor will they confirm or deny whether the Salahis were already on the grounds when the misstep occurred. This is an important distinction. Once you’re inside the White House gates, it becomes significantly easier to wander into someplace you don’t belong, especially with a crowd. It’s possible that a White House staffer walked them through the gates, perhaps for a legitimate purpose. The Salahis know a lot of people in DC, as their 2,000-person wedding guest list attests.

It would have been a challenge for the Salahis to have slipped past the first checkpoint. First of all, the Secret Service Uniformed Division are extremely, shall we say, detail-oriented. On my first day at the White House, I watched them turn away a very famous person that they see pretty much every day because he wasn’t on the list. He was only admitted when a White House staffer vouched for him.

Since then, I’ve seen countless people hold up the line trying to get in, most of whom really did belong there but weren’t on the list, including me. It doesn’t matter who you are or what your story is, if you’re not on the list, No…Soup…For…You!

Even if you decide that once in a million times, someone could slip through unassisted, what are the odds that it would be this couple, who were planning to slip through? It doesn’t seem possible.

The Secret Service’s Office of Professional Responsibility has been tasked with investigating this incident, but it will be interesting to see how they let this play out publicly. If the Salahis got onto the grounds legitimately, and then snuck into the dinner, it’s embarrassing, sure, but a much less serious security problem.

If, on the other hand, they just managed to talk their way past that first checkpoint, it points up a disturbing vulnerability. Even though they were physically checked, there’s a reason for doing background checks on White House visitors, especially ones who will be sharing dinner with the President.

Hulu Is Still Free, and Bigger than Ever. Next Year, Though…

Given that Hulu is about to start tinkering with paywalls and subscriptions, its viewership numbers matter a bit less than they used to. But for the record, the site–co-owned by News Corp.’s (NWS) Fox, GE’s (GE) NBC Universal and Disney’s (DIS) ABC–had a record October.

ComScore (SCOR) says Hulu generated 856 million video views during the month, second only to Google’s (GOOG) YouTube in the U.S. This makes sense given that Hulu is driven in large part by broadcast TV, which starts running new shows in the fall.

And if Hulu didn’t post record numbers after adding ABC’s shows to the mix, there would be some real head-scratching. But it will be very interesting to see what happens to these numbers next year if Hulu does move ahead with some sort of pay service.

comscore views

As always, note the huge disparity between YouTube and everyone else. And it’s also worth noting that while Hulu generates more views than any of its non-YouTube competitors, its reach isn’t quite as deep:

comscore audience

All of which is less relevant than the joint venture’s performance, which is still the subject of much debate. People familiar with Hulu tell me it is “close to break-even,” but I worry about putting much stock in words like “close” (or “break-even,” for that matter) without seeing numbers.

And in any case, that’s only half the issue for its owners these days; just as important are the performance of its parent companies and whether all the free stuff on Hulu is helping or hindering their networks and studios.

But more on that after the holiday. For now, here’s wishing you and yours a happy and healthy Thanksgiving.

The Cable Guys Ask For Some Love

carey_cable_guyA year ago, when Time Warner Cable (TWC) and Viacom (VIA) sparred over renewal fees, Viacom took out ads asking consumers for sympathy. Today, faced with the prospect of similar fights with the likes of News Corp. and Scripps, Time Warner Cable is launching its own media salvo.

The cable provider is promoting a “Roll Over Or Get Tough” campaign, which asks consumers to… well, it doesn’t ask them to do anything, really. But there is a Website where the company makes its case — its programming partners want more money, because that’s what they always want — and says that at some point consumers will be able to “vote” on… something.

The thing is, the cable providers are at least half right: Cable programmers do want more money, because that’s what they always want. And now broadcasters like CBS (CBS) and News Corp.’s Fox (NWS), which traditionally haven’t been paid for their programming — at least not officially — want money, too.

But boy oh boy is it going to be hard to gin up sympathy for the cable guys. When’s the last time you felt anything remotely warm and fuzzy toward your local operator, who may well have an effective monopoly in your neighborhood, and certainly acts like someone who has a monopoly?

And in any case, it’s hard to see what consumers are expected to do here: Left to their own devices, they might well elect to pay for just a handful of cable channels that they want, instead of subscribing to dozens of ones they never, ever watch. That might well drive down cable bills, dramatically. Which is why neither programmers or providers want that to happen.

Going, Going…Most of What’s Left of Joost Goes to Adconion Ad Network

dark-knight-burningThe tale of Joost, the would-be online video heavyweight, is almost at an end. Most of the company’s remaining assets have been sold off to Adconion Media Group, the two companies announced today.

What exactly did Adconion buy? Some of Joost’s technology, as well as its trademark, and about a dozen of the company’s remaining 25 employees, a spokeswoman says.

So what does that leave? Does any part of the original Joost survive as an operating company? “I believe so,” says the spokeswoman, who is going to get back to us about that.

Price? Your guess is as good as mine. But I’m guessing it’s not going to be very much, and nothing close to what investors like Sequoia, Index and Viacom (VIA) were hoping when they plowed $45 million into the company more than two years ago. Index, by the way, is also an investor in Adconion and led an $80 million C funding round in February 2008.

In any case, this is all a matter of “i” dotting and “t” crossing, as Joost has officially been in hospice mode since June, when the company laid off most of its employees and replaced CEO Mike Volpi. Prior to that, Volpi and his investors had been trying to broker a sale of the company, hoping that they could convince a big infrastructure player like Comcast (CMCSA) or Time Warner Cable (TWC) to bail it out.

No dice, though Time Warner Cable did end up hiring some technical help from Joost.


New Capabilities Provide Advertisers, Content Owners and Publishers with an End-to-End
Cross-Channel Video Solution

SANTA MONICA, CALIF. – NOVEMBER 24, 2009 — Adconion Media Group (www.adconion.com), the largest independent global audience and content network, announced today that it has acquired certain assets from privately-held Joost, the online video service. Terms of the transaction were not disclosed.

“Video is a top priority for our company, and through the acquisition of the Joost assets we will be able to provide advertisers, content owners and website publishers with an end-to-end global video platform and cross-channel video and display ad-serving solution,” said Tyler Moebius, CEO, Adconion Media Group. “This acquisition immediately brings additional scale and content to the Adconion video pre-roll network for clients who are looking for a safe, cost-effective alternative to achieve the maximum value of online video advertising. We’ll also continue to operate Joost.com, providing clients with a destination site to showcase and distribute their branded entertainment content.”

In June, Joost announced a change in its business strategy to focus on providing white-label video platforms, and Adconion plans to pursue this strategy. On Friday, Adconion announced its first long-term licensing partnership as the exclusive display and video ad-serving solution for the Goldbach Media Group in Europe.

The acquisition of Joost assets adds many dimensions to Adconion’s existing video services and further will solidify its position in the online video and content syndication market. Prior to the acquisition, Adconion offered targeted distribution of content, including video and television commercials, to audiences around the world via Adconion.TV; as well as customized branded entertainment solutions for clients through its exclusive relationship with the digital studio RedLever. Through the Joost acquisition, Adconion.TV will add to its library of professionally-produced video content available for targeted pre-roll advertisements across 2,000 premium publishers.

Janus Friis, co-founder of Joost, said, “Over the past few months we have been actively exploring strategic options for Joost, and have concluded that the sale of certain of its assets to Adconion is in the best interests of Joost. Adconion has a strong technological platform and a compelling business model, and we believe that both businesses will benefit as a result of this acquisition.”

A leader in advertising innovation, targeting and distribution, Adconion reaches nearly 300 million unique users on a monthly basis. Prior to the Joost acquisition, Adconion was serving more than 80 million video streams per day to targeted audiences across 2,000 global websites.