Qatari News Giant Al Jazeera Purchases American Channel Current TV

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This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Audio Transcript:

Marco Werman: I'm Marco Werman. This is The World. Al Jazeera used to seek respectability. The TV network, based in Qatar and funded by the government there, was once seen by many Americans as a network that sympathizes with terrorists. For years Al Jazeera has struggled to overcome that perception. Now it's trying to do so by purchasing a new channel in the US. The channel, sold this week to Al Jazeera, is Current, a cable news outlet founded and owned by, among others, former vice-president Al Gore. Al Jazeera says it plans to shut it down and replace it with its own programming, most of it produced here in the US. Brian Stelter writes about this in The New York Times Media Decoder blog. So, Al Jazeera's been incredibly persistent in its attempt to reach American audiences, Brian, so this marks what seems to be a bold move for them. Given, though, that this is a country that hasn't given Al Jazeera a big audience or much respect, what do they want from this market?

Brian Stelter: I think Al Jazeera looks at the United States the way all other global media companies do, and sees that it won't be complete, so to speak, without access to the audience here. The United States is an influential, affluent audience of trend-setters, so to speak, of diplomats, of agenda-setters, all of the people that you want to at least have the opportunity to talk to, even if they tend not to always tune in. And until now, it's been very hard for Al Jazeera to reach those people. This gives them another way to do it.

Werman: How many Americans does Al Jazeera International currently reach, do you know?

Stelter: It's on in a handful of cities, including Washington, DC, New York, Toledo, Burlington, and then that's about it. It is streamed on the Internet, so if you really want to try hard you can watch online, but we're talking about one or two percent of the country at most that now accesses it.

Werman: Now, Current TV is running on Time-Warner Cable, which was planning to drop it, and are apparently dropping it even faster now that Al Jazeera owns it. So how would Al Jazeera run without the support of a major cable company?

Stelter: It appears that Al Jazeera has received support from the other companies that currently carry Current, and that's ComCast, that's DirecTV, Dish, AT&T, Verizon. They've all consented to this sale. They say they'll continue to carry this channel when it becomes Al Jazeera. But without Time-Warner Cable, they will lose about 10 million homes at the outset. Al Jazeera says it will start off somewhere around 40 million homes. That's a huge leap forward for them. But I suspect Al Jazeera might be willing to pay distributors for the right to be on their systems. There is some precedent for that. FoxNews, when it started in the mid-1990s, paid to get on the cable system here in New York City, for that very reason. They needed to reach that influential audience in New York City in order to have a channel. Of course, Al Jazeera, because it is owned by the government of Qatar, has even deeper pockets than the owners of FoxNews. So it's possible they're willing to cut deals to get on here.

Werman: I'm wondering if Al Jazeera has a model for breaking into the American market. I mean, I think of another international broadcaster, BBC, that opened up BBC America. Is there a similarity?

Stelter: There is. You know, the BBC put on a nightly newscast from Washington and Al Jazeera says it's going to put on a lot of programming from New York and other US cities. It says that about 60 percent of its programming here in the US will come from the US. The other 40 percent will come from Doha, where Al Jazeera English is based and where Al Jazeera Arabic is based. Clearly they believe that to get an American audience, they are going to have to produce news in America, and they are going to have to cover the US the way they cover the rest of the world.

Werman: And what do you think, Brian? Do you think it will make a difference being on its own network here in the United States? Can they build an audience here, do you think?

Stelter: I think it will be very tough going, especially in the beginning, to build an audience, just as it was for FoxNews, as it was for MSNBC. But we're sort of in a new mini-golden age of international news here in the United States, with access to the BBC World News, and with access to French and Russian and Chinese and other sources. Even if the audiences aren't big, at least viewers have the opportunity to access them. In the past, they didn't even have the choice.

Werman: Brian Stelter, New York Times Media Reporter. Very good to speak with you. Thanks.

Stelter: Thank you.