In a deal finalized yesterday, Al Jazeera will be taking over Current TV, the low-rated cable channel started by Al Gore and his business partner Joel Hyatt in 2005 in an attempt to create a new progressive cable news network.
It’s the end of a bizarre ride for Current, which went on in obscurity for years in the higher reaches of most cable packages, showing things like user submitted/internet videos and documentaries without really embracing the liberal political identity it was originally conceived to have until taking a big gamble and hiring Keith Olbermann at great expense in 2011.
Unsurprisingly, the Olbermann experiment was another rocky chapter in Current’s checkered history, ending with Olbermann getting fired in March, 2012, just one year into a 5 year $50 million contract and with litigation coming from both sides. And, in another bizarre chapter revealed in a Wall Street Journal report yesterday (subscription only) apparently Glenn Beck’s media company, the Blaze, also attempted to buy the station last year but according to the Journal’s reporting Current’s owners, who include Gore and Hyatt, refused the offer because “the legacy of who the network goes to is important to us and we are sensitive to networks not aligned with our point of view.”
Beck confirmed this detail on Twitter saying he was “rejected by progressive owners.” This has led to a lot of fulmination by conservative bloggers who think that it’s somehow damning to Gore that he finds Al Jazeera’s point of view congenial and not Beck’s. As Sean O’Neal points out on AV Club, “Current is being blasted for selling out to biased, extremist ideologues rather than to Glenn Beck.”
Al Jazeera is a pan-Arab news organization owned by the government of Qatar, one of the United States’ strongest allies in the Middle East, but for years it has had to fight against the image that many Americans have of it that it’s somehow anti-American or even pro-terrorist in some way. Al Jazeera launched an English language network, Al Jazeera English, in 2006, but has had little luck getting the channel into many American cable or satellite packages, as most cable and satellite companies have simply refused to carry it outside of New York City and Washington.
As New York Times media reporter Brian Stelter writes in his excellent report on the Current TV sale “While the television sets of White House officials and lawmakers were tuned to the channel during the Arab Spring in 2011, ordinary Americans who wanted to watch had to find a live stream on the Internet.”
The plan is for the new channel, tentatively to be called Al Jazeera America, to feature 60 percent new, original programming produced in the United States and 40 percent programming from the existing Al Jazeera English network produced in Doha, Qatar. While the deal will undoubtedly increase Al Jazeera’s reach into American homes, with most reports saying that taking over Current will mean that the new channel reach 40 million households, it’s unclear just how much taking over Current TV’s spot on the cable dial will help. To begin with, Current is extremely high on the dial in most cable packages, a place where most households never venture, and got extremely low ratings.
And, in a further blow, as soon as the deal was announced Time Warner Cable immediately stopped carrying Current, meaning that before even getting started Al Jazeera America lost access to 12 million households including most of the New York City media market, which would seem to be a natural place for the network to find an audience. This quickly led to speculation as to whether the hasty decision was made due to the imagined content of the new network. Liberal pundit Chris Hayes tweeted: “Time Warner’s decision to drop Current now that it’s been acquired by Al Jazeera is cowardly and offensive.”
Others portrayed the move as simply a business decision. Time Warner Cable has threatened to drop Current before due to its low ratings and a change-in-ownership clause in their contract allows the cable company to do that now. The cable company has not clarified what led to the decision.
Al Jazeera Seeks a U.S. Voice Where Gore Failed [New York Times]