Current TV, the struggling cable news network co-founded by former Vice President Al Gore, has been sold to Qatar-based Al Jazeera. CEO and co-founder Joel Hyatt announced the sale to staffers Wednesday, characterizing the deal as “very difficult.” The move comes as Time Warner Cable — the nation’s second-largest cable operator — confirms that it is dropping the channel.
“Our agreement with Current has been terminated and we will no longer be carrying the service,” TWC said in a statement. “We are removing the service as quickly as possible.”
Other cable operators also are said to be exploring options to drop the channel.
The sale to Al Jazeera — valued at close to $500 million — means that TWC was contractually permitted to drop Current, sources tell The Hollywood Reporter. But as of Wednesday evening, the channel was still available to TWC video subscribers. It’s unclear what will replace Current on Time Warner Cable. But the cable operator serves close to 12 million customers nationwide and was among Current’s biggest carriers.
“We are proud and pleased that Al Jazeera, the award-winning? international news organization, has bought Current TV,” Gore and Hyatt said in a joint statement Wednesday. “Current ?Media was built based on a few key goals: 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, like Current, ?believes that facts and truth lead to a better understanding of the world?around us.”
Al Jazeera will create a new channel based in New York called Al Jazeera America, with about 60 percent of its programming produced in the U.S. while the remaining 40 percent will come from the news organization’s English-language channel Al Jazeera English. The network will be based in New York City and will utilize Al Jazeera’s existing bureaus in New York, Washington, Los Angeles, Miami and Chicago. Al Jazeera will open new bureaus in additional cities with plans to double Current’s staff to 300, the company said.
The move will give Al Jazeera a significantly expanded foothold in the U.S. putting it in 40 million homes — 20 million fewer than Current reached. Although AJE streams its content online, the network has resorted to essentially renting airtime on channels to get its content onto U.S. television sets. In summer 2011, when the Arab Spring was raging across the Middle East, it sublet space on former Spanish-language network Rise on Time Warner Cable in New York. It also has forged similar agreements with networks in Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., Ohio and Vermont.
“For many years, we understood that we could make a positive contribution to the news and information available in and about the United States and what we are announcing today will help us achieve that goal,” Al Jazeera director general Ahmed bin Jassim Al Thani said in a statement. “We look forward to working together with our new cable and satellite partners to serve our new audiences across the U.S. I am both exceptionally pleased and very proud that we could take this very important step.”
Rumblings of a potential Current sale surfaced in October, prompting the network to release a statement. “Current has been approached many times by media companies interested in acquiring our company,” the network said at that time. “This year alone, we have had three inquiries. As a consequence, we thought it might be useful to engage expertise to help us evaluate our strategic options.”
At the time, Current representatives said an outright sale was only one of three optoins that also included a strategic partnership or investment in the company. Current earns as much as 12 cents a month from operators, according to SNL Kagan. That is a steep price considering the network’s very modest ratings.
The former vice president founded Current with businessman Hyatt in 2005 with the goal of providing an “independent voice” for the 18-to-34 demographic. But after years with little traction, the net then best known for user-generated fare made a bold, pricey play for attention with the signing of former MSNBC anchor Keith Olbermann to a five-year, $50 million contract in 2011.
The bulk of that buzz came the following year when Current execs opted to sever ties with their biggest star. Among the issues at play were Olbermann’s repeated unauthorized absences as well as “sabotaging the network” and “attacking Current and its executives,” sources said at the time. Olbermann then sued Current, claiming up to $70 million in damages, and the network countersued. That case is ongoing.
In the months since, Current has failed to garner viewers. A schedule that features offerings from Eliot Spitzer, Joy Behar, Cenk Uygur, former Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm and others goes largely unwatched most nights, averaging about 40,000 viewers.