Al Jazeera To Acquire Al Gore’s Network (WSJ, 03/01/2013)

News network Al Jazeera is poised to boost its presence in American television through the purchase of Current TV, the current affairs channel partly owned by Al Gore, say people familiar with the matter.

Al Jazeera is near a deal to pay a few hundred million dollars for Current TV, one of the people said. Current TV, which was co-founded by Mr. Gore and entrepreneur Joel Hyatt in 2005, has recently been struggling with low ratings.

Al Jazeera, which is owned by the government of Qatar, became famous in the U.S. about a decade ago when its Arabic-language outlet aired videos of Osama bin Laden in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks. Since then the English-language version of the channel, which is available online in the U.S. and on TV in a few cities, has gained plaudits for its international coverage.

The purchase of Current TV could give Al Jazeera national cable distribution in the U.S., something the channel has been seeking for many years. But Al Jazeera doesn’t plan to simply replace Current TV with its English-language channel. Instead it will rebrand a new channel, along with making a « significant investment » in content, one of the people familiar with the matter said.
The deal comes several months after Messrs. Gore and Hyatt, the two largest owners of Current TV, put the channel on the market.

Launched in 2005, with a focus on user-generated content, Current has evolved in recent years into a left-leaning professionally produced outlet. But it has struggled to boost its ratings — parting ways with its most prominent host Keith Olbermann last March — and gain broad distribution. Current had 59 million subscribers in 2012, according to SNL Kagan, out of a total pay television universe of about 100 million households.
Only about 22,000 households on average tuned into Current TV between January and November. By comparison, since late September, Time Warner Inc.’s CNN has averaged about 700,000 households during primetime with about 1.9 million tuning into Fox News, according to Nielsen. Fox News is a unit of News Corp., owner of The Wall Street Journal.

Current TV’s poor ratings threatened to weaken its distribution. It has lately been operating under an unusual contract stipulation with Time Warner Cable, the nation’s second-largest cable operator: It had to meet certain minimum audience thresholds every quarter or risk being dropped.

Cable operators that now carry Current TV would likely have to agree to any programming overhaul that the channel’s new owner would propose, one cable executive said. But a person familiar with the deal said that Al Jazeera has already negotiated deals with Current’s existing distributors.

For Al Jazeera, a new channel has potential because it draws a large U.S. audience on its website, the person said. The reputation of Al Jazeera improved in the U.S. during the Arab Spring two years ago, when State Department officials began to praise its coverage and Americans tuned into its online channel in record numbers. During the Arab Spring, 60% of Al Jazeera English’s online viewership came from within the U.S.

News of the pending deal was first reported by the New York Times.

John Jannarone and Shalini Ramachandran contributed to this article.

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