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What Al Jazeera’s Current TV Acquisition Means for American Media

January 3, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
In an attempt to reach a larger American audience, Al Jazeera English announced plans to purchase cable channel Current TV, first started by former Vice President Al Gore. Ray Suarez talks to Al Jazeera executive producer Robert Wheelock about the Qatar government-owned news organization's move and challenges going forward.
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JEFFREY BROWN: Next: why Al-Jazeera news is willing to spend a reported half-billion dollars on a little-watched cable network in the U.S.

Ray Suarez reports.

RAY SUAREZ: The Pan-Arab news channel Al-Jazeera has long wanted to boost its reach in the U.S. beyond a few large metropolitan areas.

With its purchase of Current, Al-Jazeera has expanded its potential audience nearly ninefold to about 40 million homes.

Current was co-founded in 2005 by former Vice President Al Gore. The channel confirmed the sale in a statement yesterday, saying:

“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.”

Al-Jazeera plans to transform Current into a new network called Al-JazeeraAmerica. It will add between five and 10 new bureaus in the U.S. beyond the five it currently operates.

Al-Jazeera has struggled to increased U.S. viewership from its earliest days. Cable and satellite companies have been reluctant to carry Al-Jazeera.

The English and Arabic-language networks are owned by the government of the small Persian Gulf emirate of Qatar. It signed on from the capital, Doha, in 1996.

Al-Jazeera’s Arabic network gained worldwide attention after American and allied troops invaded Afghanistan, when it was the only channel to cover the war live. Al-Jazeera English launched in 2006. It has a different staff and budget from the Arabic network.

But both are overseen by a member of Qatar’s royal family. And both actively covered the Arab spring, which helped the English-language channel win a prestigious Peabody Award to add to a number of other high-profile journalistic laurels it was awarded last year. There are already signs of trouble for the new American channel.

Yesterday, the nation’s second largest cable TV operator, Time Warner, dropped Current as soon as the Current-Al-Jazeera deal was confirmed.

For its part, Current TV tried to make its mark promoting user-generated content from the public. But it’s recently evolved into a more conventional talk format with a liberal leaning. Its ratings have been very small.

According to the Nielsen ratings company, 42,000 people watched Current programming on a typical night in 2012. The network is expected to post $114 million in revenue this year.

Robert Wheelock is the executive producer of news gathering for Al-Jazeera in the Americas, and he joins us now.

Well, with price tags conservatively estimated north of $500 million, that’s a lot of money for a channel watched by very few people. What did Current have that Al-Jazeera needed?

ROBERT WHEELOCK, Al-Jazeera in the Americas: Access, access across this country, across the United States, something that we tried in various forms to gain.

And this availability and this opportunity came, and I must say the editorial board and the management of the company have very aggressively pursued this, but not without knowledge that there’s risk.

RAY SUAREZ: Can you be sure that you’re going to keep that access, if cable operators can now reexamine their agreements and say, well, it’s not Current anymore, maybe we don’t want to run it anymore?

ROBERT WHEELOCK: We think so.

Look, obviously, people have done market research. People have just checked some things. We know, for instance, that we have very large traffic on the Web, and 40 percent of that is driven from the United States. So, there’s an appetite, there’s interest.

We don’t buy, I don’t buy into the edict that Americans aren’t interested in international news. Americans don’t have enough international news available to them. They watch what’s available. We offer an alternative. It’s a broader coverage of news. It’s a broader spectrum into countries that aren’t traditionally covered.

And we will increase accordingly also our coverage of American news and in Latin America, which we’re quite proud of that coverage.

RAY SUAREZ: It’s interesting that you say that, because this is a time when people are actually watching less news on television. They are looking to television less often — this is educated adults — to get a picture of what’s going on in the world.

And here you are entering an already crowded marketplace.

ROBERT WHEELOCK: Again, maybe they’re watching less because what they see is the same, channel after channel after channel.

People have 800 channels to choose from. We do offer something that’s different. We offer what we believe is editorially correct content, not politically correct.

We offer, as I said, coverage in countries that other networks are not invested in. We have 71 bureaus around the world. We’re proud of that. We’re proud that we’re in Timbuktu, we’re Peru.

We cover stories that you won’t see everywhere else. Is all the world going to tune in and watch Al-Jazeera on any one night? No. But can we get a good hunk of that? We think we can, and we think our content speaks for itself, and we have got a reputation now as a good news provider.

RAY SUAREZ: When CCTV signed on, there were questions about editorial independence, because it’s in property of the Chinese government. Can we ask the same questions about Al-Jazeera, since it is owned by a foreign entity and with a direct managerial pipeline from the royal family?

 ROBERT WHEELOCK: You can and you are, and it’s been asked repeatedly.

Again, I think the content speaks for itself. We have won a number of awards. Last year, the RTS, Royal Television Society, gave us cable network of the year. That was a big deal for us. The BBC was based in England. Did that mean they were only — that they were driven by English coverage? CNN started in Atlanta. Did they have a bias towards the South? No.

That happens to be where we’re headquartered. It happens to be where the impetus for this came from. But this is a longtime plan for global expansion.

We have a Balkans network. We have a Swahili network. We’re planning a Turkish network. We have children’s programming and sports. This is obviously a key and very much needed part to that expansion.

RAY SUAREZ: But you’re best known — or co-best known, if that’s a word — for the Arabic-language service.

And people who watch this very closely, who’ve made academic study of it say they are two very kettles of fish, Al-Jazeera in Arabic and Al-Jazeera in English. How are they different, and how would you explain that to an American, who has heard a lot of things that haven’t been so complimentary about the Arabic-language service?

ROBERT WHEELOCK: The difference is, who’s your audience?

To be honest, it’s targeted towards an audience and the coverage — look, we rely on Arabic for some material, too. They rely on us. We share some facilities.

Editorially, we do have different takes on these. We’re doing things for the Americas. They’re doing things for more — for the Middle East.

It’s the — the allegations that we’re corrupted in our views, it’s interesting. Everybody — and I only hear this from people, never directly, but it’s always sort of referred — but it’s never referred to with any instance or by people who say, here’s an example.

They haven’t watched it. I have always said — and it sounds a little corny — if you watch us, you’re going to like us. You are going to find it interesting. Now we will have an opportunity for more people to watch us. And that’s been what we have been missing.

RAY SUAREZ: Robert Wheelock of Al-Jazeera, thanks for joining us.

ROBERT WHEELOCK: Thank you. I appreciate it.