Al Jazeera Buys Current TV [Update]

Al Jazeera, the Arab news network, is reportedly nearing a deal to take over Current TV, the struggling cable network

current-tv-2011Al Jazeera, the Arab news network, is reportedly nearing a deal to take over Current TV, the struggling cable network co-founded by former Vice President Al Gore in 2005. According to the New York Times’ Brian Stelter, who was first to report on the potential deal, acquiring Current would give the Middle Eastern news channel access to 60 million of the 100 million American homes that get cable or satellite TV.

Update (8:44 p.m.): Current TV founder co-founder Joel Hyatt confirmed Al Jazeera will purchase the network in an email to staff this evening. 

Mr. Hyatt’s email contained several interesting details including that Mr. Gore asked Colin Powell’s for advice on working with the Arab network and “Colin Powell told Al that Al Jazeera is the only cable news network he watches.” In the email Mr. Hyatt also revealed he and Mr. Gore will both serve on the advisory board of Al Jazeera America and that Time Warner Cable is dropping Current because it “did not consent to the sale to Al Jazeera.” Read Mr. Hyatt’s full email below. 

Since its inception, Current has suffered from low ratings. In 2011, the network attempted to counter this by bringing on ousted MSNBC anchor Keith Olbermann and former MSNBC contributor Cenk Uygur to help them re-brand with a focus on left-leaning talk. That experiment didn’t help the network revolutionize its ratings. In March, Current acrimoniously parted ways with Mr. Olbermann and replaced him with former New York Governor Eliot Spitzer. Last month, when asked about his show, Mr. Spitzer quipped, “Nobody’s watching, but I’m having a great time.”

According to the Times, if the deal goes through, Al Jazeera won’t use Current to distribute Al Jazeera English, which is based in Qatar. Instead, the company will begin a new, New York-based English-language venture. Though some Current TV staff members may stay on, Mr. Stelter wrote that the network’s “schedule of shows will most likely be dissolved in the spring.”

Al Jazeera has gained a growing audience with its journalism over the years, but the network has also earned criticism its coverage is anti-American.

Though he often uses Twitter to trash his (many) former employers, as of this writing, Mr. Olbermann has yet to weigh in on the rumored deal. Mr. Gore and Mr. Spitzer have also not responded to requests for comment from the Observer.

Joel Hyatt’s email to Current staffers:

From: Joel Hyatt 
Date: January 2, 2013, 6:36:46 
Al and I are thrilled and proud to announce that a few moments ago Current was acquired by Al Jazeera, the award winning international news organization. 

When considering the several suitors who were interested in acquiring Current, it became clear to us that Al Jazeera was founded with the same goals we had for Current: To give voice to those whose voices are not typically heard; to speak truth to power; to provide independent and diverse points of view; and to tell the important stories that no one else is telling. Al Jazeera, like Current, believes that facts and truth lead to a better understanding of the world around us. 

Al and I did significant due diligence as part of our evaluation process. We were impressed with all that we learned about Al Jazeera and its journalistic integrity, global reach, award-winning programming, and growing influence around the world. That influence has recently been demonstrated by Al Jazeera’s important and impactful coverage of the Arab Spring, which was widely credited as being the most thorough and informative coverage from any media company. Colin Powell told Al that Al Jazeera is the only cable news network he watches (which he is able to do because Comcast carries it in the Washington, DC market).

As you may know, Al Jazeera is funded by the government of Qatar, which is the United States’ closest ally in the Gulf Region, and is where the United States bases its Middle East Air Force operations. I have had first-hand knowledge of Qatar’s policies as a result of my tenure on the Board of The Brookings Institution. The Saban Center for Middle East Policy is a joint venture of The Brookings Institution and Qatar, and it has offices in Washington, DC and Doha, Qatar. Its purpose is to propose practical public policies that can contribute to peace in the Middle East, and its founding Director is my friend, Martin Indyk, the former U.S. Ambassador to Israel.

While considering this decision, I spent a week in Doha, Qatar, where Al Jazeera is headquartered, and I am pleased to tell you that I could not have been more impressed with their operation. First of all, they are bringing large-scale resources to journalism – something which we have not been able to do. Al Jazeera has more than 80 bureaus around the world, and is seen in more than 260 million homes in 130 countries. Al Jazeera has a staff of over 4000 people, including 400 journalists. Its journalists hail from more than 50 countries, with every conceivable nationality and religion represented on its professional team. Al Jazeera is a major global media player. 

The rest of the world thinks so too. Al Jazeera English has won many, many awards including an Alfred I DuPont Award for Best Documentary, the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Four Freedoms Awards for freedom of speech and expression, an Amnesty International Award for International TV and Radio, the prestigious Peabody Award, and the Huffington Post Ultimate Media Gamechanger award.

All of this is compelling, but what really convinced Al and me that Al Jazeera would be a great home for the people of Current was their publicly stated Values and Core Capabilities. Their mission includes the following: Diversity (“bringing stories from the underreported communities, societies and cultures from across the globe), Journalistic Integrity (“committed to the uncompromising pursuit of truth and the ideals of journalism”), and A Voice for the Voiceless (“promoting the basic human right of the freedom of expression for people everywhere”).

Al Jazeera is planning to invest significantly in building “Al Jazeera America,” a network focused on international news for the American audience. Al and I will both serve on the Advisory Board of Al Jazeera America, and we look forward to helping build an important news network.

Obviously there will be a lot of transition work in the coming weeks. Al Jazeera does not have a management team in place in the U.S to run this new venture. They are extremely impressed with our people and our accomplishments. I will be holding staff meetings in the next few days and will introduce the senior folks from Al Jazeera who have led the planning for this entry into the United States. (I will separately communicate as to the day and time for those staff meetings.) We will communicate more of the details of this acquisition during those meetings.

Getting this transaction done was very difficult. One of Current’s distributors, Time Warner Cable, did not consent to the sale to Al Jazeera. Consequently, Current will no longer be carried on TWC. This is unfortunate, but I am confident that Al Jazeera America will earn significant additional carriage in the months and years ahead. In the United Kingdom, it has become the number three news network (behind the BBC and Sky News). It did that by investing in great programming – as it intends to do in the United States. 

Al and I are incredibly proud of what all of us have been able to accomplish together. Throughout our short history, Current has been a thought leader for the media industry, innovating many exciting features that became standard after we introduced them. (Tweets on television anyone?!) Just this past year, we’ve been able to provide our viewers with fantastic interactive and social TV 2.0 coverage of the Presidential Election, including a peek inside the Obama Campaign headquarters, in depth analysis of the Libor Scandal, the breaking and relentless coverage of the Trayvon Martin scandal, and the list goes on and on. We have won most of the important awards in the journalism profession. We have stayed true to our independence and courage. And in our choice of new corporate parent, we are continuing to strive to make a difference – to provide the American people with information and analysis they need to live better, more secure, happier lives. I am confident this will continue into the future. 

As I reflected deeply about this decision – both to sell the company and to whom – I kept coming back to one basic notion: The purpose of journalism is to provide those who don’t know with information and knowledge so that they can become those who do know. Bias and hatred are fueled by ignorance. Information and knowledge are the only antidotes to that ignorance. That is the role journalism must play – to provide the knowledge that sweeps away the bias and hatred caused by ignorance. It is a noble pursuit. I am proud of each and every one of you for your dedication to pursuing that noble goal. And it is a privilege to have worked with all of you these past few years.

Please accept my best wishes for a happy, healthy, exciting and fulfilling New Year! 

All the best,

Al Jazeera Buys Current TV [Update]