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Al-Jazeera pays $500m for US Current TV

04 January 2013, 14:16

Los Angeles — Al-Jazeera has a growing reputation for serious news gathering and its reporters have won some of the biggest awards in journalism. What the Pan-Arab news network doesn't have is a significant presence in the US.

That's about to change now that Al-Jazeera is spending $500m to acquire Current TV, the left-leaning cable news network co-founded by former Vice President Al Gore.

The deal gives Al-Jazeera access to about 50 million homes. As part of an expansion, the network is promising to hire more journalists and double the number of US news bureaus it has.

Still, some big questions remain for Al-Jazeera, which is owned by the government of Qatar: How will it stand out in a crowded field of cable TV news channels? And how can it overcome an image that was cemented for many Americans when it gave voice to Osama Bin Laden in the years following the 9/11 terrorist attacks?

Marwan Kraidy, a professor of communication at the University of Pennsylvania and an expert on Arab media, said Al-Jazeera needs to overcome the perception among some Americans that it is a "toxic brand".

"The US market has been the nut they wanted to crack, and this is why they pursued Current TV so assiduously," he said. "A small country like Qatar has very few tools to exercise global influence, and they've figured out that media is one of these tools."


US resistance to Al-Jazeera isn't logical, Kraidy said, because Qatar's foreign policies "are very much aligned with US policies at the moment".

The network, which will be rebranded Al-Jazeera America in 90 days, isn't likely to make its mark covering US news events. Its expanding coverage of US news may be of more benefit for its 260 million subscribers abroad.

Instead, US viewers may tune in if the news channel can jump into a big international story and repeat the success they had covering the Arab Spring in Egypt and Bahrain, said Al Tompkins, a broadcast and online professor at The Poynter Institute, a journalism school.

"There will be an opportunity for them to have some play in a world story that will unfold, and we'll see if they can step into it and provide something no one else can," Tompkins said. "It only takes a few moments of brilliant work and people start noticing you."

The deal faced an initial setback, as Time Warner Cable said it will drop Current TV for business reasons, though it left open the possibility of picking up Al-Jazeera America if there is demand.

The nation's second-largest TV operator said the network doesn't have enough viewers at the moment.

Boost to viewer numbers

"As a service develops, we will evaluate whether it makes sense for our customers to launch the network," said Time Warner Cable spokesperson Maureen Huff.

An Al-Jazeera spokesperson said the new network aims to present an "unbiased" view, "representing as many different viewpoints as possible". It is seeking a broad audience, starting from the base of people in the US who have already sought out its coverage online.

Even after it is rebranded, the channel will continue to be carried by DirecTV, Dish Network, Comcast, AT&T U-verse and Verizon FiOS, according to a person familiar with the matter. The person spoke on condition of anonymity and wasn't authorised to speak publicly.

That boosts the reach of Al-Jazeera to about 50 million homes, up from the 4.7 million that could watch Al-Jazeera English, which is available to some subscribers in New York and Washington. That's down slightly from the 60 million homes Current TV was in.

It also amounts to a hefty payday for former vice president Gore and cofounder Joel Hyatt, each of whom had 20% stakes in Current. Comcast had less than a 10% stake. Another major investor in Current TV was supermarket magnate and entertainment industry investor Ron Burkle, according to information service Capital IQ.

Gore announced the sale on Wednesday, saying in a statement that Al-Jazeera shares Current TV's mission "to give voice to those who are not typically heard; to speak truth to power; to provide independent and diverse points of view; and to tell the stories that no one else is telling".

Gradual transformation

Orville Schell, the former dean of journalism at University of California, Berkeley who was on Current's board, said the sale was justified.

"The reason to sell to Al-Jazeera is that they wished to buy it," Schell said in an e-mail reply to The Associated Press. "Whatever one may think about them, they have become a serious broadcaster that covers the world in an impressively comprehensive way. Time Warner probably dropped the contract because they fear American prejudice."

Al-Jazeera plans to gradually transform Current into Al-Jazeera America. More than half of the content will be US news and the network will have its headquarters in New York, spokesperson Stan Collender said.

Al-Jazeera's assimilation into US mainstream media hasn't been smooth. In 2010, Al-Jazeera English's managing director, Tony Burman, blamed a "very aggressive hostility" from the Bush administration for reluctance among cable and satellite companies to show the network.

As far as regulatory issues go, Collender said there are no rules against foreign ownership of a cable channel — unlike the strict rules limiting foreign ownership of free-to-air TV stations. He said the move is based on demand, adding that 40% of viewing traffic on Al-Jazeera English's website is from the US.

"This is a pure business decision based on recognised demand," Collender said. "When people watch Al-Jazeera, they tend to like it a great deal."

Culture clash

Al-Jazeera has garnered respect for its ability to build a serious news product in a short time. In a statement announcing the deal, it touted numerous US journalism awards it received in 2012, including the Robert F Kennedy Journalism Award Grand Prize and the Scripps Howard Award for Television/Cable In-Depth Reporting.

But there may be a culture clash at the network. Dave Marash, a former Nightline reporter who worked for Al-Jazeera in Washington, said he left the network in 2008 in part because he sensed an anti-American bias there.

Al-Jazeera English went on the air in November 2006. It moved quickly to establish a strong presence on the internet, launching web streaming services and embracing new social media services such as Twitter in part to compensate for its lack of a presence on US airwaves.

The English news network has a different news staff and a separate budget from the Arabic network, which launched in 1996. They and the company's growing stable of other Al-Jazeera branded channels are overseen by Sheik Ahmed bin Jassim Al Thani, a member of Qatar's royal family.

Sheik Ahmed took over last year following the abrupt resignation of the company's longtime Palestinian head, Wadah Khanfar, who was widely credited with helping build Al-Jazeera into an influential global brand. In his departure note to staff, he said he was leaving behind "a mature organisation" that "will continue to maintain its trailblazing path".

Both the English and the Arabic channels actively covered the protests, violence and political upheaval that have become known as the Arab Spring.

Current, meanwhile, began as a groundbreaking effort to promote user-generated content. But it has settled into a more conventional format of political talk television with a liberal bent. Gore worked on-air as an analyst during its recent election night coverage.

Outflanked by MSNBC

Among its leading personalities are former New York Governor Eliot Spitzer and Cenk Uygur, a former political commentator on MSNBC who hosts the show called The Young Turks. Current signed Keith Olbermann to be its top host in 2011 but his tenure lasted less than a year before it ended in bad blood on both sides.

On Wednesday, former Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm said the public affairs programme she hosts would stay on the air for the next few weeks before she leaves for other pursuits.

California Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom also said he will end his show on Current TV by the end of January, although he said he decided to do so before the acquisition was announced.

Current has largely been outflanked by MSNBC in its effort be a liberal alternative to the leading cable news network, Fox News Channel.

Current hired former CNN Washington bureau chief David Bohrman in 2011 to be its president. Bohrman pushed the network to innovate technologically, with election night coverage that emphasised a conversation over social media.

Current TV, founded in 2005 by former vice president Gore and Joel Hyatt, is expected to post $114m in revenue in 2013, according to research firm SNL Kagan. The firm pegged the network's cash flow at nearly $24m a year.



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