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Al-Jazeera enters U.S. market through Al Gore's Current TV

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By The Associated Press
Thursday, Jan. 3, 2013, 8:36 p.m.
 

LOS ANGELES — Al-Jazeera has a growing reputation for serious news gathering, and its reporters have won some of the biggest awards in journalism. What the Pan-Arab news network doesn't have is a significant presence in the United States.

That's about to change now that Al-Jazeera is spending $500 million to acquire Current TV, the left-leaning cable news network co-founded by former Vice President Al Gore. The deal gives Al-Jazeera access to potentially 50 million new homes. As part of an expansion, the network is promising to hire more journalists and double the number of U.S. news bureaus it has.

Still, some big questions remain for Al-Jazeera, which is owned by the government of Qatar: How will it stand out in a crowded field of cable TV news channels? And how can it overcome an image that was cemented for many Americans when it gave voice to Osama Bin Laden in the years after the 9/11 terrorist attacks?

Marwan Kraidy, a professor of communication at the University of Pennsylvania and an expert on the Arab media, said the deal is part of an expansion binge by Al-Jazeera.

“The U.S. market has been the nut they wanted to crack, and this is why they pursued Current TV so assiduously,” he said. “A small country like Qatar has very few tools to exercise global influence, and they've figured out that media is one of these tools.”

Working against it, Kraidy said, is the perception among some Americans that Al-Jazeera is a “toxic brand.”

That resistance to Al-Jazeera isn't logical, Kraidy said, because Qatar's foreign policies “are very much aligned with U.S. policies at the moment.”

The nation's second-largest TV operator, Time Warner Cable Inc., dropped Current after the deal was confirmed on Wednesday, saying the network didn't have enough viewers.

The change in ownership gives Time Warner Cable the right to drop the channel, but spokeswoman Maureen Huff said the company is keeping “an open mind” about airing the Al-Jazeera network.

“As a service develops, we will evaluate whether it makes sense for our customers to launch the network,” Huff said.

The purchase will allow a news channel called Al-Jazeera America, broadcasting to American homes 90 days from now with a distinctly non-American view of the world.

The network claims many people in America have sought its programming online, and that it aims to present an “unbiased” view, “representing as many different viewpoints as possible.”

Even after it is rebranded later this year, the channel will continue to be carried by DirecTV, Dish Network, Comcast Corp., AT&T U-verse and Verizon FiOS, according to a person familiar with the matter. The person spoke on condition of anonymity and wasn't authorized to speak publicly.

That boosts the reach of Al-Jazeera to about 50 million homes, up from the 4.7 million that could watch Al-Jazeera English, which is available to some subscribers in New York and Washington. That's down slightly from the 60 million homes Current TV was in.

It also amounts to a hefty payday for Gore and cofounder Joel Hyatt, each of whom had 20 percent stakes in Current. Comcast had less than a 10 percent stake. Another major investor in Current TV was supermarket magnate and entertainment industry investor Ron Burkle, according to information service Capital IQ.

Gore announced the sale on Wednesday, saying in a statement that Al-Jazeera shares Current TV's mission “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.”

Orville Schell, the former dean of journalism at University of California, Berkeley who was on Current's board, said the sale was justified.

“The reason to sell to Al-Jazeera is that they wished to buy it,” Schell wrote in an email reply to The Associated Press. “Whatever one may think about them, they have become a serious broadcaster that covers the world in an impressively comprehensive way. Time Warner probably dropped the contract because they fear American prejudice.”

Al-Jazeera plans to gradually transform Current into Al-Jazeera America. More than half of the content will be American news, and the network will have its headquarters in New York, spokesman Stan Collender said.

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