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.