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Al Jazeera completes deal to buy Current TV

January 02, 2013|By Joe Flint
  • Former Vice President Al Gore, Current TV co-founder.
Former Vice President Al Gore, Current TV co-founder. (Danny Moloshok / Associated…)

Current TV, the small cable news channel that was co-founded by former vice president Al Gore, has been sold to Al Jazeera, the Qatar-based media company.

The acquisition gives Al Jazeera, which is funded by the Qatar government, the opportunity to establish a footprint in the United States, where it already has an English-language version of its Qatar service -- called Al Jazeera English -- but only limited reach.

Just buying Current does not guarantee instant distribution, however. Time Warner Cable, which offered Current in roughly 10 million of its homes, is dropping the channel. Without Time Warner Cable, which is the largest distributor in New York City and Los Angeles, Current TV is in only about 50 million homes.

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Typically, when a cable network is sold or changes its programming direction, distributors can renegotiate their deals. It is possible that other distributors that carry Current may see the sale as an opportunity to drop a low-rated channel that is fairly expensive in proportion to its ratings. According to SNL Kagan, an industry consulting firm, Current TV costs about 12 cents, per subscriber, per month.

Terms of the purchase were not disclosed by the privately held Current Media. The loss of Time Warner Cable from Current's list of distributors would certainly lower the value of the channel. Last fall when Current first acknowledged it was for sale, speculation was that it could fetch $300 million. Without Time Warner Cable, that price would be significantly lower.

Originally a home primarily for documentary-style programming, Current spent the last two years trying to build a news-talk network that would appeal to a liberal audience. It spent heavily to woo commentator Keith Olbermann to its network, hoping that viewers and advertising dollars would follow.

But the plan backfired when Olbermann clashed with management and was forced out. He subsequently sued Current, and the two sides entered into a nasty legal battle that is still not resolved. In the meantime, other personalities Current brought into boost ratings, including former New York governor Eliot Spitzer and comedian Joy Behar, have failed to generate much attention.

In a memo announcing the sale, Current TV co-founder Joel Hyatt said Al Jazeera plans to rebrand Current TV as "Al Jazeera America" with a focus on international news. Hyatt said he and Gore would serve on an advisory board for the new outlet.

Gore and Hyatt said in a statement that Current and Al Jazeera shared similar goals of speaking "truth to power" and providing "independent and diverse points of view and to "tell the stories that no one else is telling."

Al Jazeera is expected to move fast in making over Current and will probably try to have its imprint on the channel by spring. Officials from Al Jazeera were not made available for comment.

One of the largest international news operations, Al Jazeera has close to 100 bureaus around the globe, and its content is available in over 250 million homes in 130 countries.

Follow Joe Flint on Twitter @JBFlint.

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