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January 3, 2013

Time Warner Cable Inc drops Current after Al-Jazeera deal

LOS ANGELES — With its purchase of left-leaning Current TV, the Pan-Arab news channel Al-Jazeera has fulfilled a long-held quest to reach tens of millions of U.S. homes. But its new audience immediately got a little smaller.

The nation's second-largest TV operator, Time Warner Cable Inc., dropped Current after the deal was confirmed Wednesday, a sign that the channel will have an uphill climb to expand its reach.

"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," the company said in a statement.

Still, the acquisition of Current, the news network that cofounded by former Vice President Al Gore, boosts Al-Jazeera's reach in the U.S. beyond a few large U.S. metropolitan areas including New York and Washington nearly ninefold to about 40 million homes.

Gore confirmed the sale Wednesday, saying in a statement that Al-Jazeera shares Current TV's mission "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 the stories that no one else is telling."

Al-Jazeera, owned by the government of Qatar, plans to gradually transform Current into a network called Al-Jazeera America by adding five to 10 new U.S. bureaus beyond the five it has now and hiring more journalists. More than half of the content will be U.S. news and the network will have its headquarters in New York, spokesman Stan Collender said.

Collender said there are no rules against foreign ownership of a cable channel — unlike the strict rules limiting foreign ownership of free-to-air TV stations. He said the move is based on demand, adding that 40 percent of viewing traffic on Al-Jazeera English's website is from the U.S.

"This is a pure business decision based on recognized demand," Collender said. "When people watch Al-Jazeera, they tend to like it a great deal."

Previous to Al-Jazeera's purchase, Current TV was in 60 million homes. It is carried by Comcast Corp., which owned less than a 10 percent stake in Current TV, as well as DirecTV. Neither company announced plans to drop the channel.

In 2010, Al-Jazeera English's managing director, Tony Burman, blamed a "very aggressive hostility" from the Bush administration for reluctance among cable and satellite companies to show the network.

Even so, Al-Jazeera has garnered respect for its ability to build a serious news product in a short time. In a statement announcing the deal, it touted numerous U.S. journalism awards it received in 2012, including the Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award Grand Prize and the Scripps Howard Award for Television/Cable In-Depth Reporting.

But there may be a culture clash at the network. Dave Marash, a former "Nightline" reporter who worked for Al-Jazeera in Washington, said he left the network in 2008 in part because he sensed an anti-American bias there.

Al-Jazeera English went on the air in November 2006. It moved quickly to establish a strong presence on the Internet, launching web streaming services and embracing new social media services such as Twitter in part to compensate for its lack of a presence on U.S. airwaves.

The English news network has a different news staff and a separate budget from the Arabic network, which launched in 1996. They and the company's growing stable of other Al-Jazeera branded channels are overseen by Sheik Ahmed bin Jassim Al Thani, a member of Qatar's royal family.

Sheik Ahmed took over last year following the abrupt resignation of the company's longtime Palestinian head, Wadah Khanfar, who was widely credited with helping build Al-Jazeera into an influential global brand. In his departure note to staff, he said he was leaving behind "a mature organization" that "will continue to maintain its trailblazing path."

Both the English and the Arabic channels actively covered the protests, violence and political upheaval that have become known as the Arab Spring.

Current, meanwhile, began as a groundbreaking effort to promote user-generated content. But it has settled into a more conventional format of political talk television with a liberal bent. Gore worked on-air as an analyst during its recent election night coverage.

Its leading personalities are former New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer, former Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm and Cenk Uygur, a former political commentator on MSNBC who hosts the show called "The Young Turks." Current signed Keith Olbermann to be its top host in 2011 but his tenure lasted less than a year before it ended in bad blood on both sides.

Current has largely been outflanked by MSNBC in its effort be a liberal alternative to the leading cable news network, Fox News Channel.

Current hired former CNN Washington bureau chief David Bohrman in 2011 to be its president. Bohrman pushed the network to innovate technologically, with election night coverage that emphasized a conversation over social media.

Current TV, founded in 2005 by former vice president Gore and Joel Hyatt, is expected to post $114 million in revenue in 2013, according to research firm SNL Kagan. The firm pegged the network's cash flow at nearly $24 million a year.

AP Television Writer David Bauder in New York and AP writer Adam Schreck in Baghdad contributed to this report.

 

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