Thursday, January 3, 2013

Rerouting the Current: Al Jazeera makes an acquisition

COMCAST’S NEW branding has a sleek, thoroughly modern look, maybe a way of reintroducing the megamedia titan and its properties to the American public. Andrew Sullivan is ankling from the Daily Beast and going behind the paywall; the Tribune Company just emerged from four years of bankruptcy; and Ann Curry is eyeing a possible tie-up with the yet-to-be-Zucker-reconfigured CNN.

But those pale in comparison with the first major media story of this infant year. The principals are both outliers relative to the standing hegemony of American mainstream electronic media; in an announcement on Wednesday, the two players — Current TV and Al Jazeera — took arguably the boldest step ever to bridge a cultural divide through the medium of television.

What’s still to be seen, once it’s all up and running, is whether a foreign-born network with a toehold in the American market can do better at  building an audience than the home-grown product it replaces.

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On Wednesday, Current chief executives Joel Hyatt and Al Gore announced that Al Jazeera, the Qatar-based news network and global media lightning rod, would be acquiring the beleaguered Current TV channel, launched by Gore and Hyatt in August 2005 and essentially on the auction block since October.

“Al [Gore] 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,” Hyatt wrote in a staff memo, excerpted by Mashable.

"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.”

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NO SOONER had the announcement been made than Time Warner Cable made its own statement, clearly defensive and possibly political: effectively more or less immediately, it would no long carry Current TV among its content choices for subscribers.

But the carriage contracts Al Jazeera inherits from Current — deals with Direct TV, Dish, Verizon and Comcast — may have made that irrelevant. Time Warner Cable may have thought of that, or the possible damage to its public relations, when the company partially reversed itself on Thursday.

“We are keeping an open mind and as the service develops, we will evaluate whether it makes sense, for our customers, to launch the network," the company said in a statement in The New York Times and The Huffington Post.

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Selling is a reversal of fortune for Current. Al Gore took point in establishing Current as an edgy, documentary-based channel that prided itself on viewer-created content as central to a loose, DIY, egalitarian ethos. The station, based in San Francisco, has gone through any number of guises and strategies in a bid to punch up viewer numbers, tapping into social media and Google’s search tools in a bid for relevance.

But the network faced challenges to its identity, not least among them a shortage of overall programming; and Current’s lo-definition broadcast technology, which gave the channel a fuzzy, antiquated visual signature despite the cutting-edge efforts of its journalists and contributors.

I observed in February 2011:

“When you’ve been on the air for just short of five years and your network is available in up to 60 million homes and you’re only seen in 23,000 of them, any bid to be a Contender means building an airplane and flying it at the same time.”

Too much, and not enough, changed between then and now.

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IN 2011, Current was distinguishing itself with the Vanguard investigative series, which showcased arresting work from a young and daring documentary unit; the iconoclastic populist portraits of Ira Glass' “This American Life”; and snarky programs like “InfoMania,” a satiric take on the news.

The big news for Current that year was the channel’s acquisition of Keith Olbermann, the mercurial, much-traveled news and political commentator, who abruptly left MSNBC two years ago this month. Olbermann was seen as someone with just the right gravitas, just the right proven viewer appeal to help make Current matter. Olbermann relaunched his old MSNBC “Countdown” under the Current banner in June 2011.

Olbermann’s arrival was widely well-received. “[Current’s] been a non-factor in terms of programming … for the first time, this puts Current on the map as a real player.” Larry Gerbrandt of Media Valuation Partners told Georg Szalai of The Hollywood Reporter.

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Sadly, no; the whole thing flamed out in March 2012. Olbermann was fired from Current a bit more than a year after he was hired, for breach of contract and what one Current insider called “sabotage.” Two days later, Current debuted “Viewpoint With Eliot Spitzer,” in the Olbermann time slot, featuring the disgraced former New York governor working his second talk show in two years.

Current lumbered along before Olbermann left and after. “The Young Turks” a political program with the shrill, sarcastic Cenk Uygur, started in December 2011 (Uygur coming over from MSNBC). In January 2012, Current launched “The War Room With Jennifer Granholm,” a show informed by the liberal perspective for the former Michigan governor, but shot on a cheesy, public-access-quality set adorned with posters of campaigns of the past.

In March 2012, Current launched “Full Court Press,” featuring liberal talk-radio host and author Bill Press, broadcasting Press talking with callers live at 6 a.m. from a Washington studio not much bigger than a phone booth. Stephanie Miller’s talk-radio program “Talking Liberally” does much the same thing, from a slightly bigger phone booth in Los Angeles, at 6 a.m. Pacific.

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ALL THIS goes away, apparently, and soon. The New York Times’ Brian Stelter reports that Al Jazeera will replace Current's programming with its own network news shows, the first step in something the company has been planning for some time.

“The Doha-based channel has long sought to extend the reach of its English-language service in the United States,” The Times said. “The deal gives the network the ability to get in front of more American viewers, which has been one of its biggest challenges. Al Jazeera English launched in New York City last year, but has previously faced resistance from cable operators in other parts of the country. Though it remains controversial for many, its reporting from the Middle East during and after the Arab Spring gave it a vastly increased profile — and a new credibility — inside the U.S.”

Stelter reports that Al Jazeera America will be based in New York, with most of its content created in the United States. The rest will originate from Al Jazeera's extant English-language channel, Al Jazeera English.

The parent Al Jazeera, launched in 2006, is well-positioned to step up the game. With nearly 70 bureaus worldwide, and broadcasting to 100 million people in 100 countries, Al Jazeera has a global footprint Current could never achieve; the AJ America offshoot would seem to have the tools and resources to be a formidable player from day one.

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But Bloomberg Businessweek reported on Sept. 25 that, well, Al Jazeera has had issues of its own.

The Al Jazeera acquisition will bring more of its  programming into the United States, but there hasn’t been much said about what the programs will be. The Bloomberg story, from just four months ago, offers the most recent clear picture of what that could be. Bloomberg Businessweek reports that Al Jazeera’s plan “to be an Arab CNN, offering a counterweight to Western cable news … appears to have been scaled back as the Qatari government-controlled network makes deep cuts in its English-language news-gathering operations and shifts its focus to sports. The gas-rich emirate’s English news channel has cut or relocated at least 200 staffers as it tightens its budget and centralizes editorial control in Qatar’s capital of Doha, current and former employees say.

“The reformulated Al Jazeera is building up its presence in a more lucrative corner of the media world: European soccer. Al Jazeera has set up a new sports network, BeIN Sport, as the emirate prepares to host the World Cup in 2022.

“The news retrenchment hit as much as 80 percent of Al Jazeera staff in Kuala Lumpur, its former broadcast center for Asia, and about half in Washington, D.C., say four former employees who declined to be identified ... About 25 employees left the Washington bureau in a wave around April, two former employees say.

“The moves suggest that Qatar ... is putting a tighter leash on spending at Al Jazeera, which had startup costs in the hundreds of millions of dollars, according to a source formerly involved in the budgetary process.”

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IF THE Bloomberg Businessweek report is right, it would be a brilliant move for Al Jazeera America; making sports part of your fullest introduction to the American market is to reach people in that market where they live. But at the same time, it’s hard to imagine Al Jazeera investing perhaps at least $400 million (the prevailing low estimate of Current’s sale price) on a ramp-up in North America just to go head to head with CNN International in reporting the third-test cricket scores. They want bigger game than that. You’d think so, anyway.

But what’s to be made of Al Jazeera America’s acquisition in light of the parent concern’s more globally strategic objective, as reported by Bloomberg Businessweek? What’s the AJA plan for making its reports widely palatable in America? How much of a player can Al Jazeera America be as a news force in the United States when it’s been making cuts to news staff in the U.S. and elsewhere for months? And what happens to Current employees when this deal goes down?

Al Jazeera America’s acquisition of Current TV is intriguing. Right now, there’s as much we don’t know about it as what we do know about it. But baby steps lead to bigger ones. Al Jazeera America could, soon and finally, communicate a pan-Arab perspective and gain real traction in the American commentariat — if nationalistic reflexes like Time Warner’s first-blush action don’t carry the day; if American mainstream media chooses to widen the strike zone on its range of on-air sources … and if Al Jazeera doesn’t downsize its own robust, indigenous news force to the point of irrelevance.

Image credits: Al Jazeera logo: © 2013 Al Jazeera. Current logo, Viewpoint title card, Olbermann 'Countdown' image: © 2012, 2013 Current TV/Al Jazeera. Gore: Kjetril Bjornsrud. Bloomberg Businessweek logo: © 2013 Bloomberg L.P.

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