News Column

Al Jazeera Makes US Plans Amid Criticism

Jan. 4, 2013


Expect to see a lot more of Al Jazeera on your TV in the coming months -- and perhaps an equal amount of chatter about whether it should be there.

The TV news network, backed by the government of Qatar, plans to expand in the U.S. later this year with a new channel dedicated mostly to domestic news. But the move is already triggering criticism from pundits, mostly conservative, and Twitter users not convinced about Al Jazeera's ambitions and editorial stance.

Al Jazeera, which has faced criticism in the past that some of its programming was anti-American, said Wednesday that it bought Current TV, a cable news network co-founded by Al Gore, for an undisclosed sum. The deal, effective immediately, gives Al Jazeera access to about 40 million cable subscribers in the U.S.

The total doesn't include about 12 million customers of Time Warner Cable, which dropped Current TV after the deal's announcement, raising the specter that lawmakers or other cable operators may resist a channel owned by an Arabic government.

The Federal Communications Commission, which doesn't typically get involved in the politics of deals, has no plans to review the acquisition because it "doesn't have regulatory oversight of transactions relating to ownership of cable networks," says the FCC's Justin Cole.

In the next three months, Al Jazeera plans to wind down Current TV, which never was able to gain traction with viewers and struggled with poor ratings. The programming will temporarily be replaced by Al Jazeera English, which broadcasts news in English in the U.S. and other countries. Later this year, Al Jazeera will launch a new operation -- tentatively named Al Jazeera America -- that will take the place of Current TV.

Al Jazeera America plans to add five to 10 bureaus -- on top of five U.S. bureaus Al Jazeera now runs here -- and hire a "substantial" number of journalists, says Stan Collender, a spokesman for Al Jazeera.

The new channel "will offer straightforward, in-depth journalism," Collender says. "It's not celebrity-driven or big-name journalists who are bigger than news."

Media analyst Paul Maxwell says Al Jazeera bought Current TV to address its biggest operational problem in the U.S.: lack of distribution. With about 4.7 million households getting access to its channel, Al Jazeera never gained traction with cable operators. Meanwhile, "Current TV had very good distribution but didn't have programming to get anybody to watch them," Maxwell says. Al Jazeera will likely improve content and presentation, he says. "They'll turn it into a news operation. They have a bunch of pros in newsgathering. They're the Arabic CNN."

But the launch of Al Jazeera English in 2006 was met with howls of protest from critics who recalled the network's airing of videotapes delivered by terrorist groups. The network's sustained operation in the U.S. has quieted many critics, says Catherine Rasenberger, a media consultant who worked to get the network on cable companies' lineup. "A lot has happened since then," she says.

The Arab Spring movement and the Egypt uprising led more Americans to demand Al Jazeera's extensive coverage, she says. "There was a groundswell of support."

But Rasenberger concedes its expansion in the U.S. could face some resistance from cable operators who may drop the station for political or financial reasons. "It's possible," she says. "There is enormous misperception as to what Al Jazeera is."

Time Warner Cable didn't elaborate on why it dropped Current TV. But Joel Hyatt, Current's CEO, told staffers that Time Warner Cable "did not consent to the sale to Al Jazeera."

But Time Warner Cable had hinted at dropping Current TV before the Al Jazeera deal because of the network's poor ratings, Maxwell says.

Still, skeptics were quick to air doubts. Conservative critics Ann Coulter, Rush Limbaugh and Erick Erickson issued statements questioning Al Jazeera's objectivity.

"Even a non-mainstream organization like Al Jazeera can get a platform to the public," says James Gattuso, a senior fellow at the conservative think-tank Heritage Foundation. "It doesn't mean the public has to listen. It's an organization that represents views far out of the mainstream in America."

Collender says Al Jazeera has spoken with other cable companies and doesn't expect any more disruptions. But he concedes convincing American viewers that it is an objective news organization will be challenging. "We expect some myths will melt away as more people watch it."

Whether Al Jazeera America will gain viewers and maintain relationships with cable operators will depend on ratings and financial performance, Rasenberger says.

"Carriers are (saying) 'How am I going to make money on an international news network?' It's still a discussion," she says. "I'm thrilled that they're getting their day in the sun with full distribution."

(c) Copyright 2013 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc.

Source: Copyright USA TODAY 2013

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