Al-Jazeera dials up deal for Al Gore’s Current TV
Current will provide the pan-Arab news giant with something it has sought for years: a pathway into American living rooms.
The New York Times
Al-Jazeera on Wednesday completed a deal to take over Current TV, the low-rated cable channel that was founded by former Vice President Al Gore and his business partners seven years ago.
Current will provide the pan-Arab news giant with something it has sought for years: a pathway into American living rooms. The channel is available in about 60 million of the 100 million homes in the United States with cable or satellite service.
Rather than simply use Current to distribute its channel Al-Jazeera English, which is based in Doha, Qatar, Al-Jazeera will create the channel Al-Jazeera America, based in New York.
Roughly 60 percent of the programming will be produced in the United States, while the remaining 40 percent will come from Al-Jazeera English.
Al-Jazeera may absorb some Current TV staff members, according to people with knowledge of the deal who insisted on anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly. But Current’s schedule of shows will most likely be dissolved in spring.
“Al-Jazeera is planning to invest significantly in building ‘Al-Jazeera America,’ a network focused on international news for the American audience,” Current CEO Joel Hyatt said in an email to staffers Wednesday evening.
Referring to Gore, he said, “Al and I will both serve on the advisory board of Al-Jazeera America, and we look forward to helping build an important news network.”
The plan will bring Al-Jazeera, which is financed by the government of Qatar, into closer competition with CNN and other news channels in the United States.
For Al-Jazeera, the acquisition is a coming-of-age moment. A decade ago, the Arabic-language channel was reviled by American politicians for showing videotapes and messages from al-Qaida members and sympathizers. Now it is acquiring an American channel.
“They really want to be able to compete for American viewers, and they have to find some way to get on,” said Philip Seib, the director of the center on public diplomacy at the University of Southern California and the author of “The Al-Jazeera Effect.”
Seib said access to Americans is important both for economic reasons, for the channel’s advertisers, and for “the journalistic legitimacy of their venture.”
To date, the country’s cable and satellite distributors have been reluctant to carry Al-Jazeera English. It is available in just a handful of cities, including New York and Washington.
To change that, Al-Jazeera has lobbied distributors, called for a letter-writing campaign by supporters and promoted its widely praised coverage of the Arab Spring.
Acquiring Current TV, and thus its distribution deals across the country, solves this dilemma for Al-Jazeera, at least partially.
Current is hard to find on many cable lineups, and some analysts say it’s at risk of being dropped by some companies because of low ratings. But it would give Al-Jazeera a foothold on the country’s cable and satellite lineups.
Then Al-Jazeera could revamp the channel and promote it as a new American-based news source.
Representatives for Current TV and Al-Jazeera did not immediately respond to requests for comment. There was no immediate word about the sale price.
Current was conceived in 2005 after Gore and Hyatt, another co-founder, bought the small cable-news channel Newsworld International. Current’s owners, along with Gore and Hyatt, include several venture-capital firms and two major distributors, Comcast and DirecTV.
After several years in obscurity showing viewer-submitted videos and documentaries, Current tacked to the left in 2011 with the hiring of MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann. A year later, Olbermann was fired, but a liberal-minded channel made in his image remained.
The channel now simulcasts liberal radio shows in the morning and features news-talk shows in the evening by entertainer Joy Behar, former New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer, former Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm and others.
None of the shows have drawn significant audiences. On a typical night in 2012, about 42,000 people were watching the channel, according to Nielsen. Spitzer quipped to a reporter from Mediabistro last month, “Nobody’s watching, but I’m having a great time.”
At the end of October, Current confirmed it was considering selling itself. Hyatt said at the time, “Current has been approached many times by media companies interested in acquiring our company. This year alone, we have had three inquiries. As a consequence, we thought it might be useful to engage expertise to help us evaluate our strategic options.”
The New York Times Co. mulled making a bid but decided not to do so.
In recent months, uncertainty has plagued the staff of Current, which is based in San Francisco. Spitzer, the host at 8 p.m., remarked that someone needed to buy the channel. Granholm, the 9 p.m. host, renewed her contract for just three months.
Plans for new programming at other hours have stalled. After the elementary-school massacre in Newtown, Conn., the channel replayed the gun documentary “Bowling for Columbine” dozens of times.
Current’s programming will continue for about three months. Then an international feed of Al-Jazeera English will be simulcast. Sometime later in 2013, the rebranded Al-Jazeera news channel will start.
Al-Jazeera intends to open new bureaus across the United States to support the American programming. The news operation has bureaus in New York, Washington, Los Angeles, Miami and Chicago.