Behind the Hubbub Over Al-Jazeera's Acquisition of Current TV and Time Warner Cable's Evolving Position About Broadcasting It In U.S.

After receiving numerous complaints about dropping Current TV hours after Al Jazeera acquired it on Wednesday, Time Warner Cable issued a statement Thursday afternoon regarding its highly criticized move.

According to the New York Times, Time Warner Cable wrote: “We are keeping an open mind, and as the service develops, we will evaluate whether it makes sense, for our customers, to launch the network.” The Times added that the cable company currently has the ability to run Al Jazeera English; however, it is averse to carry the channel because it believes there’s little demand for the channel, and it dislikes that it is streamed free online.

Time Warner Cable currently airs Al Jazeera English in New York City and Los Angeles via separate contracts. Though Al Jazeera plans to use 40 percent of its Al Jazeera English content to fill its newly acquired channel, it plans to create a whole new channel, tentatively called Al Jazeera America, based in New York. This means a majority of its content will be produced in the United States. Al Jazeera, which has bureaus in New York, Washington, Los Angeles, Miami and Chicago, plans to open more in other cities across the country. Reports have estimated that Al Jazeera paid $500 million for the acquisition.

“There’s a major hole right now that Al Jazeera can fill. And that is providing an alternative viewpoint to domestic news, which is very parochial,” Cathy Rasenberger, a cable consultant who has worked with Al Jazeera on distribution issues in the past, told the New York Times.

Current TV launched in 2005 after Al Gore and co-founder Joel Hyatt envisioned a progressive network that focused on user-submitted content. In 2006, however, CNN launched its iReport, allowing it “to capture the wave of technology and individual content creation,” wrote Steven Rosenbaum.  

After the deal was reached, Time Warner Cable, which reaches 12 million homes, announced it was dropping the channel. In a statement, it said: “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.”

According to the New York Times, Time Warner Cable warned that it might drop the poorly rated Current prior to Al Jazeera’s acquisition — and its change-in-ownership clause allowed it to do so.

Now, Time Warner Cable is doing what too many media corporations and providers do — putting profit before people. Despite it being the second largest cable company nationwide, making millions in profit, Time Warner Cable will withhold vital news from its customers until it believes Al Jazeera can be profitable. It’s clear that despite its statement about waiting to add Al Jazeera until it “makes sense, for our customers,” that it is really waiting to make sure Al Jazeera will make financial sense.

If Time Warner cared about its customers, it would not hesitate to provide them access to one of the greatest media sources in the world. Plus, it is paying for channels it doesnt want anyway. As Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting once pointed out, when customers pay their cable bills, they are paying the price content providers charge the cable companies for their channels. For example, Fox charges about $1 per month, while MSNBC charges 20 cents per month.

FAIR wrote:

If customers are forced to pay—and pay more—for the dubious privilege of 24-hour access to the Fox News Channel, why not offer them the chance to watch Al Jazeera English … in addition to the O’Reilly Factor?

Al Jazeera English alone has won numerous awards for its coverage around the world. The network broadcasted videos from Al Qaeda members and fearlessly reported on the Iraq war. Its mission is to give voice to the voiceless and question authority — values Current TV co-founder Joel Hyatt said made him confident that he was making a good decision.

Hyatt wrote in an email to his employees:

We were impressed with all that we learned about Al Jazeera and its journalistic integrity, global reach, award-winning programming, and growing influence around the world. That influence has recently been demonstrated by Al Jazeera’s important and impactful coverage of the Arab Spring, which was widely credited as being the most thorough and informative coverage from any media company.

Still, Al Jazeera is sometimes seen by the misinformed as spreading anti-American programming — an issue raised prominently by the Bush administration.

In a previous New York Times article, Philip Seib, the author of The Al Jazeera Effect, said, “There are still people who will not watch it, who will say that it’s a ‘terrorist network.’ …Al Jazeera has to override that by providing quality news.”

It seems as though cable companies are fearful viewers may not like hard-hitting news that could portray America’s actions in a negative light. And some may not. But as Al Jazeera management stated, there is a strong demand for Al Jazeera in the United States, as Americans account for 40 percent of the viewership of Al Jazeera English.

Al Jazeera's director general, Ahmed bin Jassim Al Thani, said in a statement: “U.S. viewers have clearly demonstrated that they like the way Al Jazeera provides compelling, in-depth news to audiences across the world.”

Many media outlets, however, have been quick to depict Americans as having little interest in world affairs. The New York Times quoted Rasenberger as warning, “There is a limited amount of interest in international news in the United States.” But here's to hoping that Al Jazeera helps Americans get a little more tuned in to what’s actually happening in the world — and how their country plays a large, and sometimes destructive role in it. 


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