When I heard the news yesterday afternoon that Al Jazeera had bought Current TV my first reaction was probably a lot like anyone who inexplicably deigns to follow the ins and outs of the media: wow. Everyone knew Current was on the block, but the reality of Al Jazeera, the Qatari government-owned network that’s admired and reviled in equal doses around the world, suddenly gaining the very big footprint in the United States that’s eluded it up until now by displacing the low-rated but fiercely independent network started by Al Gore — well, that’s one of those “holy crap” moments media watchers live for.
In case you haven’t been following along: Al Jazeera will buy out Current for a deal that’s estimated at around $500 million. For that, it will get access to most of Current’s 40 million viewers — basically its entire cable carriage with one notable exception we’ll get to in a minute — and will be allowed to shutter Current in its present form and create and entirely new network that will be called Al Jazeera America (a name sure to induce simultaneous heart attacks in Pamela Geller and Michele Bachmann). It’ll be headquartered in New York City and eventually open nationwide bureaus with a staff of around 300, total. 60% of its programming will be produced here in the states with the other 40% being generated from Qatar.
All of Current’s programming will go away, as will, in all likelihood, most of Current’s staff. I have friends at Current and they’re not exactly hopeful about their futures as of yesterday. Al Gore stands to personally net about a hundred million dollars off of the deal, making him just the latest liberal media icon to loudly proclaim his passion for journalistic independence until somebody — in this case the government of the wealthiest country in the world — offers to drop a dump-truck full of money on top of him, at which point all that integrity crap goes right out the window.
It’s worth mentioning at this point that while Current TV never really hit its stride in the ratings, it still raked in a pretty healthy yearly profit, so Gore and Current co-founder Joel Hyatt’s decision is mostly a financial one. And the lifecycle of capitalism proves that it’s ugly and merciless yet again.
The memo that Gore and Hyatt released yesterday to the staff and public is exactly what you’d expect in a situation like this — a lot of self-congratulatory high-fiving over the ways in which Al Jazeera America will supposedly bring an exciting new level of journalistic excellence to the United States. If you’ve ever watched Al Jazeera English, the present incarnation of Al Jazeera’s efforts in the states and the English-speaking world, you know that, yes, journalistic excellence is something it generally has in spades. Excitement, not so much. It’ll be interesting to see whether Al Jazeera can and will tailor its American programming more for the tastes of American audiences. News doesn’t have to be entertaining, per se, but it should be engaging and dynamic; so far, Al Jazeera’s been neither of these things. Its coverage, particularly of the Arab Spring, has at times been exceptional, but its overall presentation is bone-dry.
With this deal, Al Jazeera instantly catapults itself into a rarified group of foreign government-owned networks that broadcast in the United States. You’re probably aware and maybe even a big fan of BBC America, but there’s also RT, the English-speaking Russian Television network based largely out of Moscow and officially owned and financed by the Russian press ministry. The difference, of course, is that Al Jazeera is no ordinary foreign-owned network; it’s an Arab-owned network. And even though Qatar is technically our closest ally in the Middle East, there are a lot of people who are going to be screaming bloody murder and portending the final triumph of Sharia Law now that the Arabs have the ability to crank their propaganda amp on American shores to 11.
Time Warner Cable, apparently having solved all of the other issues that regularly plague its hostages/customers, isn’t wasting time making its thoughts on the Al Jazeera buyout of Current known. Upon learning of the deal, it immediately eliminated Current TV from its lineup, instead putting up a slate where the network used to be that reads “This Channel Is No Longer Available on Time Warner Cable.” It goes without saying that TWC is already getting slammed with accusations of being “gutless” — in the words of a screaming Huffington Post headline — and reacting solely out of an anti-Al Jazeera political and cultural bias. The cable giant, which reaches around 12 million homes — 40,000 or so if you factor out the ones currently not getting service — will say only that it had a deal to carry Current TV and now that Current TV is going away, so is the deal. If you’re asking yourself why that would instantly end the contract even though Current is still on the air at the moment, congratulations, you’re seeing the what makes TWC’s decision stink to high heaven.
I’ll be curious to see whether any of the perpetually paranoid members of the far right currently infecting our government speak out or even attempt to step up and take some kind of action against the deal. It can already be expected that the Fox News crowd will howl about liberal Al Gore selling out to a network that’s been accused of heartily serving up an anti-U.S. bias — look for the surefire New York Post headline “Al Jazeera Gore” — but it would be entertaining as hell to watch staunch conservatives forced into a position of trying to save an outlet like Current TV. I think the cognitive dissonance would cause some kind of singularity that might swallow the universe.
The bottom line, though, is that this deal is happening — it’s already happened. And it has the potential to change the landscape of cable news in this country. Although there’s a strong possibility that one network that very few people watched will be replaced by another network that very few people watch. Sure, media critics will have a lot to say about it — but viewers may not care one bit. And in the end, they’re the only ones that matter.