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Al Jazeera will face hurdles to succeeding with Current TV

Analysis

January 03, 2013|By Joe Flint
  • Al Jazeera hopes the acquisition of cable channel Current TV will finally give the Qatar-based news service a substantial footprint in the U.S.
Al Jazeera hopes the acquisition of cable channel Current TV will finally… (AFP/Getty Images )

Al Jazeera hopes it can succeed where Al Gore failed with Current TV.

Gore and his business partner Joel Hyatt tried to turn Current TV into a legitimate news/talk channel and compete with MSNBC for liberal-minded viewers. Current spent heavily to woo commentator Keith Olbermann, hoping he'd be the linchpin of the channel.

Instead, Olbermann clashed with management and was bounced out last March, barely a year into a five-year deal. With him went any momentum Current had to increase its tiny audience and add advertisers. Shows featuring former New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer and "The View" co-host Joy Behar have struggled.

Now Al Jazeera plans to rebrand Current as Al Jazeera America with a focus on international news aimed at American viewers.

There is certainly a lack of international news on broadcast and cable news programs in this country. Most U.S. news organizations in print and television have greatly cut back on resources devoted to international stories. At the same time, many executives privately view international coverage as the broccoli of programming: It's good for you, but no one wants to eat it.

Al Jazeera English has found an audience among influence makers in Washington. Former Secretary of State Colin Powell told Gore that Al Jazeera is the only cable news network he watches, according to Hyatt.

But getting wide distribution in the U.S. has proved a challenge as most pay-TV operators in the United States do not carry the channel. In the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks there has been a perception among some that Al Jazeera, which is owned by the government of Qatar, had an anti-American bias in its coverage. That baggage has played a big part in the reluctance of distributors to offer the channel.

Al Jazeera English has come up with some clever ways to get distribution. Besides offering content free on the Internet, Al Jazeera has leased time from other channels to get distribution on big pay-TV operators such as Time Warner Cable in New York City and Los Angeles. It is also available in Toledo, Ohio, and Burlington, Vermont.

With 40 million homes, the Qatar-government backed Al Jazeera thinks Current can finally give it a real footprint in America.

That number would have been 50 million, but Time Warner Cable announced it would no longer carry Current because of the sale.

Time Warner Cable was able to drop Current because its distribution agreement for the channel had a clause that allowed the cable operator to end the deal in event of an ownership change. Current has a very small audience and Time Warner Cable has been threatening to drop it for some time. The sale gave it cause to break the contract.

That explanation did not stop speculation that Time Warner Cable was more concerned about the new owners of Current than it was about its ratings.

Time Warner Cable actually has an agreement in place to carry Al Jazeera English but it does not yet do so beyond those previously mentioned third-party pacts. One reason, people familiar with the company's thinking said, is because of the free Internet feed. Time Warner Cable does not want to pay for something -- and charge its subscribers for something -- that can be accessed free online.

Current's other big distributors -- including Comcast Corp., which had owned a stake in Current -- plan to continue carrying the service after the Al Jazeera makeover. Still there are some distributors, such as Cox Communications, which has a big customer base in Southern California, and New York's Cablevision, that carry neither Current nor Al Jazeera English and for the moment have no plans to add them.

Al Jazeera's coverage of the Arab Spring uprisings went a long way toward increasing awareness for the channel and eliminating some of the baggage it has been carrying since 2001. 

For many distributors, though, carrying Al Jazeera America may be as much a business issue as a political hot potato. Even with the deep pockets of the Qatar government, Al Jazeera does not have the leverage of big U.S. media companies to negotiate distribution deals for its channels.

Of course, News Corp.'s Fox News initially started out by paying distributors to carry it. Now it charges well over $1 a month per subscriber for distribution. Al Jazeera has already said it will put its money where its mouth is in terms of content. It may have to be willing to do the same for distribution.

After all, red white and blue are nice colors, but green usually trumps them.

Follow Joe Flint on Twitter @JBFlint.

ALSO:

Al Jazeera in talks to buy Current TV

Al Jazeera strikes deal for Al Gore's Current TV

Al Gore looking beyond Keith Olbermann spat at Current

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