Big Al and his Al Jazeera America deal
01/03/13 01:42 PM
By ED BARK
The perception problem remains immense.
Al Jazeera's purchase of Al Gore's Current TV, with an intent to rechristen it Al Jazeera America, gives the Qatar-based network a far bigger U.S. "platform" than it's ever had. Still, a good number of potential viewers may consider it un-American to watch a network that used to regularly provide an unfiltered video forum for Al Quaeda members and supporters. Or to put it bluntly, a "terrorist network" despite latter day efforts to play it straight.
Gore, the former vice president and Democratic presidential nominee, launched Current seven years ago with an eye toward presenting news in a different way via homemade videos. That didn't work, prompting Current to hire the oft-volatile Keith Olbermann in June of 2011 before firing him early last spring.
In its dying months, Current sought to position itself to the left of even MSNBC with a prime-time roster of personalities ranging from deposed CNN host and former disgraced New York governor Eliot Spitzer to ex-Michigan governor Jennifer Granholm, who announced her resignation from the network when the sale to Al Jazeera was announced.
For a reported $500 million purchase price, including a $100 million payout to Gore, Al Jazeera for now is buying carriage in roughly 40 million homes. Time Warner Cable also had made Current available in an additional 12 million homes, but immediately announced its refusal to participate Wednesday. The company's statement was notably terse: "Our agreement with Current has been terminated and we will no longer be carrying the service. We are removing the service as quickly as possible."
Current reportedly rejected another suitor, Glenn Beck, before accepting Al Jazeera's offer. That would have been an even starker transition from far left to far right, although Beck at least initially would have attracted an appreciably larger following than Current ever had. The New York Times reported that "on a typical night last year, just 42,000 people watched their (Current's) shows."
Beck termed the rebuff a "badge of honor" on his Wednesday radio show, telling listeners that it was purely ideological. He also said, "Not surprised. Not a shock . . . I mean, I wouldn't sell to Al Gore."
Gore, in a statement confirming the sale, said that Al Jazeera shared Current's determination to "give voice to those who are not typically heard; to speak truth to power; to provide independent and diverse points of view; and to tell stories that no one else is telling."
He used similar boilerplate rhetoric at the close of a January 2012 session with TV critics. "We pride ourselves on being independent," Gore said during the annual winter "press tour" in Southern California. "It's not just a word. It's not just a slogan. It's not just an identity. It is a reality that empowers us to ignore what corporate conglomerates might want. We don't answer to any powers that be."
The emergence of Al Jazeera America will give Fox News Channel another whipping post should it choose to use the lash. But the No. 1-rated cable news network may decide it's better off ignoring the network entirely rather than calling any attention to it.
Current currently has carriage deals with Comcast, DirectTV, Dish Network, Verizon Fios and AT&T. They're all slated to carry Al Jazeera America, at least in the short term.
Whether the network can overcome a good deal of built-in resistance is the overriding question after Current turns over the keys. Persuading viewers to give Al Jazeera America a chance could be the equivalent of trying to sell peanut butter in the Mojave dessert.
On the other hand it would be difficult for any network to fare any worse than Current did. Or for anyone to make an easier $100 million than Gore will soon have in hand.