WASHINGTON – Boosting its foothold in the United States, the pan-Arab television Al-Jazeera has reached a deal to buy a new US-based news channel, a step that poses a challenge to the flagship channel to overcome a significant image problem in the country.
"We are proud and pleased that Al-Jazeera, the award-winning international news organization, has bought Current TV," former vice-president Al Gore, the San Francisco-based channel's chairman, and Joel Hyatt, co-founder and CEO, said in a statement cited by Agence France-Presse (AFP).
The Doha-based television announced a deal on Wednesday, January 2, to buy Current TV, the cable channel founded by Al Gore.
The price of the purchase was not disclosed, but people with direct knowledge of the deal pegged it at around $500 million, indicating a $100 million payout for Gore, who owned 20 percent of Current.
The Arabic broadcaster said it will start a new US-based news channel with the acquisition, which will make it available in more than 40 million US households, up from 4.7 million at present.
"By acquiring Current TV, Al-Jazeera will significantly expand our existing distribution footprint in the US, as well as increase our newsgathering and reporting," said Al-Jazeera Director General Ahmed bin Jassim Al Thani.
The deal brings Al-Jazeera, which operates under the patronage of the emir of Qatar and his family, into closer competition with American news channels like CNN, MSNBC and Fox.
Current, a liberal channel which has battled low viewership, had been distributed in about 60 million of the 100 million homes in the United States with cable or satellite service.
One of its distributors, Time Warner Cable, which accounted for about 12 million of those homes, announced late Wednesday it was terminating its carriage deal.
"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," Time Warner Cable said in a statement.
Al-Jazeera, which began broadcasting in 1996 with staff largely drawn from the BBC's short-lived Arabic television, gained world fame through its exclusive reporting of the US military intervention in Afghanistan in late 2001.
Known for its forthright style, frank journalism, quality programs, independence and willingness to discuss taboo issues, Al-Jazeera is the most-watched channel in the Arab world.
But the pan-Arab television came under fire over its coverage of popular revolts in some Arab countries.
Some criticize Al-Jazeera for its “sensational” coverage of anti-regime protests in Syria, while almost neglecting coverage of the strife in Bahrain, a neighbor to Qatar.
But analysts opine that Al-Jazeera will have a major challenge in removing a major image problem in the United States.
"Al-Jazeera has deeper pockets. The downside is the politics,” Jimmy Schaeffler, pay TV consultant at The Carmel Group, told Reuters.
“People in America associate Al-Jazeera with the Muslim world or the Arab world or the Islam world and they have problems with that.
"They have psychological, political and emotional concerns and that will work against them."
Robert Thompson, professor of TV and popular culture at Syracuse University, agrees.
"There's a fair amount of paranoia when it comes to Al-Jazeera," he said.
Al-Jazeera has won the ire of American politicians for showing videotape from Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.
“There are still people who will not watch it, who will say that it’s a ‘terrorist network,’ ” Philip Seib, the author of “The Al-Jazeera Effect”, told The New York Times.
“Al-Jazeera has to override that by providing quality news.”
Al-Jazeera’s new channel would air in 2013 and would be headquartered in New York City.In addition to existing bureaus in New York, Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, Miami and Chicago, Al-Jazeera would open more bureaus and would double its US-based staff to more than 300 employees.
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