Al-Jazeera pays $500M for Current TV

LOS ANGELES (AP) — With its $500 million purchase of left-leaning Current TV, the Pan-Arab news channel Al-Jazeera will soon be seen in tens of millions of U.S. homes. It’s a steep price, but the acquisition helps the network in its aim to quickly spread its message to more Americans.

The purchase will create a news channel called Al-Jazeera America, coming to American homes 90 days from now with a distinctly non-American view of the world. The network claims many people in the U.S. have sought its programming online, and that it aims to present an “unbiased” view, “representing as many different viewpoints as possible.”

The deal already had its first casualty.

The nation’s second-largest TV operator, Time Warner Cable Inc., dropped Current after the deal was confirmed 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 new Al-Jazeera America.

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

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 former Vice President Al 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 confirmed the sale 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.”

Al-Jazeera, owned by the government of Qatar, plans to gradually transform Current into Al-Jazeera America by adding five to 10 new U.S. bureaus beyond the five it has now and hiring more journalists. More than half of the content will be U.S. news and the network will have its headquarters in New York, spokesman Stan Collender said.

Al-Jazeera has garnered respect for its ability to build a serious news product in a short time. In a statement announcing the deal, it touted numerous U.S. journalism awards it received in 2012, including the Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award Grand Prize and the Scripps Howard Award for Television/Cable In-Depth Reporting.

But there may be a culture clash at the network. Dave Marash, a former “Nightline” reporter who worked for Al-Jazeera in Washington, said he left the network in 2008 in part because he sensed an anti-American bias there.

Current, meanwhile, began as a groundbreaking effort to promote user-generated content. But it has settled into a more conventional format of political talk television with a liberal bent. Gore worked on-air as an analyst during its recent election night coverage.

Among its leading personalities are former New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer and Cenk Uygur, a former political commentator on MSNBC who hosts the show called “The Young Turks.” Current signed Keith Olbermann to be its top host in 2011 but his tenure lasted less than a year before it ended in bad blood on both sides.

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