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Al-Jazeera hopes Current TV purchase will give it access to more American homes

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Since its launch in 2006, al-Jazeera TV’s English-language news channel has racked up prestigious journalism awards for its reporting on international issues, including the Arab Spring uprisings. The problem: Hardly anyone sees al-Jazeera English (AJE) because few cable TV operators carry it.

On Wednesday, al-Jazeera’s owner — the emir of the oil- and natural gas-rich Persian Gulf state of Qatar — sought to change that.

Al-Jazeera will pay an undisclosed sum — unconfirmed reports said $500 million — for Current TV, the little-watched but widely distributed cable network co-founded by former vice president Al Gore. Al-Jazeera doesn’t want Current for its name or programming; it wants Current’s entree into American households. Al-Jazeera will start a new channel called al-Jazeera America that will produce news for and about Americans. It will instantly have access to about 50 million cable homes that Current reaches, more than 10 times AJE’s distribution.

Al-Jazeera says it will operate AJE and al-Jazeera America as separate channels, although about 40 percent of AJE’s content will appear on the new channel. It will utilize some of the resources of its existing Washington bureaus when it launches this year. In addition, it plans to add five news bureaus across the country to the 10 AJE already operates.

The deal could mark a new era in a new hemisphere for a news organization that helped smash government control of information in the Arab world. Al-Jazeera — the name means “the peninsula” in Arabic — transcended national censors when it began broadcasting across the Middle East via satellite in 1996.

But its attempts to enter the rich media markets of the West haven’t been quite as revolutionary.

Some of the low visibility of the English-language AJE channel has been economic and technological; cable companies have limited channel positions and have been reluctant to give up slots unless programmers pay steep entry fees. Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News Channel, for example, secured valuable spots on cable systems when it started in 1996 only by paying system owners then-record sums.

But there also have been overtones of an anti-Arabic backlash in AJE’s struggles. The network has operated in the shadow of its Arab-language parent, which was often the first to air Osama bin Laden’s video communiques, showed images of dead American soldiers at the start of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and gave a megaphone to Holocaust deniers and anti-Jewish hate speech.

Al-Jazeera’s nadir may have been its public denunciation by then-Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, who in 2003 accused it of spreading “vicious lies” about American military actions.

Bottom line: Despite winning Polk, Peabody and duPont awards during its six years on the air, AJE has managed to gain access to just 4.7 million of the nation’s 100 million cable and satellite TV homes. (The Falls Church-based MHz broadcast network carries AJE in the D.C. area.)

The deal for Current, which is based in San Francisco, has several potential glitches. Al-Jazeera’s plan to turn Current into a new channel called al-Jazeera America could run afoul of some of Current’s programming contracts with cable operators; the contracts prohibit cable networks from making major programming changes without the operators’ consent. Within hours of the news, Time Warner Cable, the country’s second-largest system owner, dropped Current from its channel lineup, saying its agreement to carry the channel is no longer in effect.

Even with more distribution and beefed-up reporting, an old issue looms: Will Americans watch news from a foreign-based source? They’ve shown little proclivity to do so before. The BBC — one of the world’s most successful international broadcasters — has found only a small following with its domestic channel, BBC America, which carries entertainment and news programs. English-language news channels from China (CCTV), France (France 24) and Russia (RT), among others, are virtual nonentities among American viewers.

Al-Jazeera’s name and notoriety make its American channel perhaps even more problematic than most. While the Arabic network has been praised by the likes of Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton for challenging dictators throughout the Arab world, both the Arabic and English-language channels have been accused of an anti-Western bias.

Although anchors and programming have not been determined for the new channel, “it’s not going to be opinion network or about celebrity news,” said Stan Collender, a spokesman for al-Jazeera America. “It’s not going to be people screaming at each other. We’ll be in-depth, and we won’t reflect only one point of view.”

Al-Jazeera and al-Jazeera English have long claimed independence from their benefactor in Qatar, but criticism of Qatar’s ruling family or its government has been almost nonexistent on the channels, said Steven Stalinsky, the executive director of Washington-based Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI), an organization that monitors Arabic media and describes itself as nonpartisan.

Stalinsky has documented ties between al-Jazeera’s management and journalists — including its former boss, Wadah Khanfar — and the Muslim Brotherhood, the pan-Arabic political movement. He is particularly critical of Yusuf al-Qaradawi, a Muslim cleric who appears frequently on al-Jazeera to inveigh against Jews, the United States and gays and has praised suicide bombings. Stalinsky calls AJE “a paler version” of the Arab channel that is less hostile to Western interests.

As for the American version: “It’s impossible to know what it will be. . . . All I can really say is that it has the same owners and the same money as their other channels,” he said.

Collender acknowledges that criticism of al-Jazeera has held back AJE and could affect the reception for al-Jazeera America. “It would be tough to deny that it wasn’t in the back of our minds,” he said. “It’s a hurdle we have to go over.”

But, he added, “If you mention Fox [News], half the people in a room would roll their eyes, too. Our pitch is that the world is a different place now. What we’re trying to do is prove through the quality that we’re providing that we’re worth watching.”

He said the network has no plans to change its name to disassociate itself from its parent, but “there could be a follow-up decision at some point.”

© The Washington Post Company