Al Jazeera strengthens U.S. hold by buying Current TV

By Ridge Mahoney

There was much consternation and hand-wringing in the aftermath of FIFA president Sepp Blatter’s remarks regarding MLS to Al Jazeera TV earlier on Saturday, but more relevant in the long term is what the Qatari-based network did Wednesday.

By purchasing Current TV, a news network launched in 2005 by former U.S. vice president Al Gore, Al Jazeera has ratcheted up its efforts to crack the American market by accessing cable providers. It has already attained carriage for its sports network, beIN Sport, which offers soccer programming in English and Spanish.

According to news reports, Al Jazeera -- which is owned by the government of Qatar --- will shut down Current TV and use its distribution avenues for a new network, Al Jazeera America. Current TV reaches about 60 million homes, as compared to the approximately five million homes in selected metropolitan areas, including New York and Washington D.C., that can receive Al Jazeera English.

Al Jazeera says 40 percent of online viewing of Al Jazeera English originates in the U.S. Yet replacing Current TV programming with its new network will not necessarily be automatic. Time Warner Cable, the nation’s second-largest cable system, said its agreement with Current had been terminated and it would no longer be carrying the service, though it later modified its stance, saying it would consider adding Al Jazeera English.

The network’s attempts to expand its U.S. reach have up until now been blocked by cable carriers reluctant to support a media company attacked by American politicians for its Arabic-language channel's broadcast of videotapes from Al Qaeda members and sympathizers.

Al Jazeera that has drawn criticism and allegations of bias, though for its English-language service it hired journalists from the BBC and other reputable outlets. It plans to double or triple the five U.S. bureaus it currently staffs and increase its roster of employees to approximately 300.

Two of the major systems that carry Current TV, Comcast Corp. and Direct TV, have not announced plans to drop the channel. Comcast Corp. owned a small stake, less than 10 percent, in Current TV.

In the past six months, beIN Sport, which is based in Florida, has expanded its carriage on both systems, often at the expense of GolTV. Its purchase of U.S. rights for away World Cup qualifiers in the semifinal and Hexagonal rounds prompted fans across the country to ask what the channel was and how to get it.

Live coverage of the Jamaica and Antigua & Barbuda away games was only available on the English-language channel. The problem for many Comcast subscribers is that beIN Sport's Spanish-language edition is more readily available than the English-language channel.

beIN Sport wrested away rights to Spain's La Liga, Italy's Serie A and France's Ligue 1 from Fox and Gol TV.

It remains to be seen if Al Jazeera can carve out a niche in the U.S. television market and, for soccer fans, how much Qatar’s winning bid to host the 2022 World Cup will affect its influence on sports and general culture. Unlike the regulations that restrict foreign ownership of free-to-air TV stations, Al Jazeera spokesman Stan Collender says there are no rules against foreign ownership of a cable channel.

“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.”

What will Sepp have to say about that?

'MY BEAUTIFUL GAME' LAUNCH PUSHED BACK. Fox Soccer has pushed back the launch of its new original series "My Beautiful Game" from Saturday to Jan. 26.

David Beckham, Clint Dempsey and the Los Angeles Lakers’ Pau Gasol are among the personalities who relive their top soccer memories in the six-episode series produced by Magic Pictures International and Fox Soccer.
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