Current TV Acquired by Al Jazeera

Al Gore cable net indie no longer; deal could radically improve distribution for Arab news channel

Al Jazeera has acquired Al Gore's struggling cable channel Current TV and will use it to expand its domestic footprint.

The eye-opening move gives Al Jazeera, the Qatar-based news network responsible for much of the in-depth reporting on the beginning of the Arab Spring revolutions in 2010 and 2011, domain over Current, which was briefly the home of Keith Olbermann and now features the likes of former New York Governor Eliot Spitzer and former Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm. Adweek has independently confirmed the news, which was first reported by The New York Times.

Under the leadership of veteran news executive David Bohrman (who has worked at both CNN and ABC News), Current moved in the last two years from an experimental, user-generated-content channel to a cable televsion news network, even as it's cut back on programs like Vanguard, its Peabody-winning documentary series, and beefed up its pundit staff with individuals like Spitzer, Granholm and former MSNBCer (and Olbermann protege) Cenk Uygur.

“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," Al Jazeera director general Ahmed bin Jassim Al Thani said on Wednesday evening. "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.” The network will double in size to more than 300 employees as it expands into New York, Los Angeles, Miami, Chicago and Washington, D.C., and opens new bureaus across the country.

All of the Current's programming will go the way of the dodo. It's a little surprising to see Current, which has long touted its own independence from big media conglomerates like News Corp., Time Warner and NBCUniversal, being acquired by a network that receives much of its funding from the government of Qatar. But the move may simply signal that founders Gore and Joel Hyatt have finally decided to cut bait after years of failing to find a viewership with a string of ever-less-successful programming strategies. Still, it's an odd choice of buyer: Al Jazeera has always publicly asserted that its editorial content remains independent of its principal backer, but many—including, in private conversation, U.S. diplomats—take issue with the network's claim to objectivity.

The Doha-based news network, which functions in the Arab world in much the same way that CNN or the BBC function in the West, received a great deal of publicity when it began covering in great detail the revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen, and the uprisings and protests in Algeria, Jordan and elsewhere throughout the Middle East. As U.S. interest in the conflicts waned, Al Jazeera received admiring notices from domestic news nets for the depth of its Arab Spring coverage, prompting the net to seek wider distribution in the U.S. (it had been available on only the highest cable tiers of a few providers).

Not all the coverage was admiring—many in the U.S. media have been critical of the network for underplaying the role of Al Qaeda in the Arab Spring, as well as its airing of taped messages from Osama bin Laden and emphasis on U.S. brutality in the Middle East. Still, it retains a measure of influence in the Arab world that makes it essential both there and to interested viewers abroad.

The acquisition of Current would seem, in many ways, to be a marriage of convenience: Al Jazeera needs Current's distribution of 40 million households (down from 60 million as of recently); Current needs Al Jazeera's money. The U.S. network is strapped for cash and has been entertaining offers, to the extent that a (totally erroneous) account of an Austin, Texas-based tech startup on the cusp of purchasing Currenkt made it into three seperate Web publications.

All that being said, the deal does not necessarily open the door to all existing Current subscribers. Affiliate contracts are generally protected by clauses that prohibit the networks from making any radical shift in their programming and/or branding. If content no longer matches what an operator signed on for when it first wrote the affiliate deal, the carrier has the right to drop the offending network from its lineup at its own discretion.

In recent years, CourtTV and FitTV were radically reconfigured as truTV and OWN: The Oprah Winfrey Network, thanks in large part to the clout of their respective parent companies (Turner Broadcasting and Discovery Communications.) Neither Al Jazeera nor Current has that kind of juice.

The new Current has already lost traction on Time Warner Cable systems. In a memo to staffers, Joel Hyatt acknowledged that the channel “will no longer be carried” on TWC, before adding that while this is an unfortunate development, he remained confident that Al Jazeera America “will earn significant additional carriage in the months and years ahead.”

For its part, TWC indicated that it plans to remove the service “as quickly as possible.” This alone will cost the network some 12.3 million subs.