In a stunning move of media musical chairs, the Qatar-owned news network, Al Jazeera, has purchased Current TV, the failing channel founded by Al Gore and partners in 2005, best known for its progressive agenda and the firing of liberal loudmouth, Keith Olbermann. While the purchase price has not been publicly disclosed, it’s rumored to be around $500 million, with a $100 million buyout of Gore’s 20 percent interest. As for how the Current acquisition will transition into the new Al Jazeera format; according to The New York Times:
Al Jazeera plans to shut Current and start an English-language channel, which will be available in more than 40 million homes, with newscasts emanating from both New York and Doha, Qatar.
The purchase is particularly remarkable in that it was not that long ago that the mere mention of Al Jazeera, originally an Arab-language channel focused exclusively on Middle Eastern news, conjured up images of Al Quaeda leaders ranting on videotapes, or sympathizers of known terrorists crowded in town squares pumping fists and burning American flags. Founded in 1996 and funded by the government of Qatar, the station was originally branded as the “terrorist network,” and subsequently eschewed by the western world as a propaganda machine.
In subsequent years, Al Jazeera worked hard to both change their brand and broaden their scope to become a global player, not just a regional tool for extremists. The network ultimately evolved into the international news presence it is currently, establishing Al Jazeera English to reach out to the wider international audience. In either incarnation, however, it has always had a unique logistical position inside some of most explosive political stories coming out of the Middle East, giving the station a powerful platform from which to report the news, something for which they’ve grown increasingly respected:
The original Al Jazeera channel’s willingness to broadcast dissenting views, for example on call-in shows, created controversies in the Arab States of the Persian Gulf. The station gained worldwide attention following the outbreak of war in Afghanistan, when it was the only channel to cover the war live, from its office there.
In the 2000s, the network was praised by the Index on Censorship for circumventing censorship and contributing to the free exchange of information in the Arab world, and by the Webby Awards, who nominated it as one of the five best news web sites, along with BBC News, National Geographic and The Smoking Gun. It was also voted by brandchannel.com readers as the fifth most influential global brand behind Apple, Google, Ikea and Starbucks.
In 2011 Salon.com noted Al Jazeera’s coverage of the 2011 Egyptian protests as superior to that of the American news media, while U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton also opined that the network’s news coverage was more informative, and less opinion-driven, than American journalism.[Wikipedia]
This evolution is at the heart of the Current purchase. Al Jazeera English had long been looking to expand itself on a par with channels like CNN, MSNBC and BBC in their international coverage of important political news and global cultural events. When the station’s the online viewing coming from viewers in the United States rose to 40 percent, it was decided the time was right for a U.S., English language acquisition. According to the announcement on Al Jazeer’s site:
There will be a transition from existing programming until the new Al Jazeera channel begins to air. The new channel will be headquartered in New York City. In addition to the existing Al Jazeera news bureaus in New York, Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, Miami and Chicago, Al Jazeera will open additional bureaus in key locations across the United States. Al Jazeera’s expansion will double the network’s U.S.-based staff to more than 300 employees.
Al Jazeera Director General Ahmed bin Jassim Al Thani said that the creation of the new U.S.-based news channel and the purchase of Current TV are historic developments in Al Jazeera’s 16-year history. He said, “For many years, we understood that we could make a positive contribution to the news and information available in and about the United States and what we are announcing today will help us achieve that goal. By acquiring Current TV, Al Jazeera will significantly expand our existing distribution footprint in the U.S., as well as increase our newsgathering and reporting efforts in America. We look forward to working together with our new cable and satellite partners to serve our new audiences across the U.S. I am both exceptionally pleased and very proud that we could take this very important step.”
But despite the enthusiasm of those listening and watching, as well as those involved with the purchase and upcoming transition, the “branding” of Al Jazeera remains a bit of a conundrum. Still framed by some through the filter of its original incendiary image, the channel has its work cut out itself in overcoming the western world’s revulsion of all things “terrorist.” Author Philip Seib (The Al Jazeera Effect), made the following comment:
“There are still people who will not watch it, who will say that it’s a ‘terrorist network.’ Al Jazeera has to override that by providing quality news.” [Source]
There is also the matter of building an audience. During the Arab Spring, as mentioned above, American government officials watched the coverage on Al Jazeeza, while the average viewer who might want to find it had to track it down via a live stream on the internet.
To change that, Al Jazeera lobbied distributors and asked supporters to write letters to the distributors — but accomplished next to nothing.
Some activists accused distributors like Comcast and DirecTV of blacklisting a channel that is widely respected elsewhere in the world. But the distributors said there was scant evidence that many American viewers wanted to watch. [Source]
Which likely was not the case. It was the case, however, over at Current TV, where ratings never quite sparked and the most talked-about event in the station’s history was the firing of its star, former MSNBC bad boy, Keith Olbermann, who never quite gelled in the format and office politics of Current. Frankly, Current itself never quite gelled. It was respected and anticipated, but never found its footing. Nor, did it seem, could people find it on their cable carriers…and too often when they did, they didn’t come back. “Paltry ratings” were a consistent problem for the station.
Al Jazeera, meanwhile, is ripe to the put its prodigious financial resources and deep talent pool into folding Current into what will be a new channel altogether, with the proposed name of “Al Jazeera America.” It plans to produce around 60 percent of the show’s content in the U.S., with the rest coming from Al Jazeera English in Qatar. Media consultants believe they’re positioned to fill a much needed role: bringing more credible international news to America:
“There’s a major hole right now that Al Jazeera can fill. And that is providing an alternative viewpoint to domestic news, which is very parochial,” said Cathy Rasenberger, a cable consultant who has worked with Al Jazeera on distribution issues in the past. However, she warned, “there is a limited amount of interest in international news in the United States.” [Source]
That “limited amount of interest” may be changing, as younger Americans engage with their international counterparts through social media sites like Twitter and Facebook. The ready access to news as it was unfolding during the Arab Spring brought the explosive day-to-day events into the lives of Americans who might typically be oblivious to international politics. Given that shift, it’s highly likely a channel focused on offering the immediacy of global news, along with the “parochial” news of America, will grab the interest and attention of more contemporary viewers.
But Al Jazeera is not just relying on the burgeoning and politically curious youth generation; they’re also engaging the support of established American opinion leaders to compel interest and trumpet their achievements. In a splashy, well-produced promotional video for the station, even Senator John McCain (R-Ariz) makes a pitch:
“What Al Jazeera has done, is achieve something that all of us, I think, want to achieve, particularly as we grown older. And that is to make a contribution that will last, and be brought to future generations that lie ahead of us.” [See video below.]
And that’s the plan: to create an innovative, cutting-edge media news source that will not only compete, but will raise the bar for expansive, comprehensive, and moment-by-moment news coverage. With the platform and resources now at the their disposal via the Current purchase, it’s anticipated they will quickly establish their new brand in the field of essential international news.
As Al Gore and his partner Joel Hyatt put it:
“Current Media was built based on a few key goals: To give voice to those who are not typically heard; to speak truth to power; to provide independent and diverse points of view; and to tell the stories that no one else is telling,” Gore and Hyatt said.
“Al Jazeera has the same goals and, like Current, believes that facts and truth lead to a better understanding of the world around us.”
News junkies the world over will look forward to their launch.
[Watch the Al Jazeera English promotional video:]