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
"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
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.
"As a service develops, we will evaluate whether it
makes sense for our customers to launch the network," said Time Warner
Cable spokeswoman 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 Corp, 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 Al 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 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
Orville Schell, the former dean of journalism at University
of California, Berkeley who was on Current's board, said the sale was
"The reason to sell to Al-Jazeera is that they wished
to buy it," Schell said in an email 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."
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
Both the English and the Arabic channels actively covered
the protests, violence and political upheaval that have become known as the
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.
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 program she hosts would stay on the air for the next
few weeks before she leaves for other pursuits.
California Lt. 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