Al-Jazeera pays $500M for Current TV

Published on NewsOK Modified: January 3, 2013 at 5:45 pm •  Published: January 3, 2013
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Al-Jazeera plans to gradually transform Current into Al-Jazeera America. More than half of the content will be U.S. news and the network will have its headquarters in New York, spokesman Stan Collender said.

Al-Jazeera's assimilation into U.S. 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 percent of viewing traffic on Al-Jazeera English's website is from the U.S.

"This is a pure business decision based on recognized 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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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 organization" 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.

Among its leading personalities are former New York Gov. 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 Gov. 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. Gov. 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 emphasized a conversation over social media.

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

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AP Television Writer David Bauder and AP Technology Writer Peter Svensson in New York and AP writer Adam Schreck in Baghdad contributed to this report.