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Current TV's New Owners Don't Need Ratings: They Have Money

In a belated but marvelous Christmas present to Roger Ailes, pan-Arab news broadcaster Al Jazeera on Wednesday announced its purchase of Current TV, the cable news network founded by Al Gore. The result—technically called “Al Jazeera America” but instantly dubbed “Al GoreZEERA” by the Internet—stands to revolutionize cable news programming, fusing the massive wealth and global orientation of Al Jazeera with the spunky, left-wing politics of Current.

Unfortunately, we may never know how this exciting new venture pans out. Because no one will be watching.

No one is currently watching Al Jazeera in the United States because it is impossible to find on television. Despite years of trying, the Doha-based network financed by the Emir of Qatar has not been able to win carriage from any major U.S. cable providers. Current has a spot on the dial, hence its appeal. At the time of the sale, the vice president’s network was available in around 60 million U.S. homes.

Alas, none of them are tuning in to Current either. The network drew around 42,000 prime time viewers on an average night in 2012, according to Nielsen. That is less than 10 percent of CNN's primetime audience and less than one percent of the number of viewers who watched ABC's cross-dressing comedy "Work It" before it was cancelled after two episodes last fall. Many of Current’s carriage agreements will expire in the next few years, and these low ratings mean the network’s prospects for renewal are grim. This sneaky Al Jazeera move won’t help matters. Before the deal, Current was on Time Warner Cable’s list of networks it might drop. After The New York Times broke the news of the deal on Wednesday, Time Warner pulled Current off the air immediately.

Essentially, Current’s estimated $500 million purchase price has bought Al Jazeera a seat at the negotiating table with cable providers around the country. That may seem like a lot to pay for the chance to beg to stay on the air. But it’s pocket change for Qatar, a tiny nation that sits atop 13 percent of the world’s total natural gas supply. Gore, who along with co-founder Joel Hyatt has been trying to offload Current almost since it launched in 2005, will walk away with a staggering $100 million for his 20 percent stake. (The failed Democratic presidential candidate reportedly was desperate to get the deal done by December 31 to save money on his taxes. Because of delays, poor Gore will now have to pay 2013 rates on his windfall.)

But it’s a mistake to get too bogged down in financial concerns when the personnel implications of Al Jazeera America are just so delightful. Early reports say Al Jazeera plans to set up headquarters in New York and produce 60 percent of its programming stateside, with a staff of around 300. It is not known how much, if any, of Current’s stable of talent Al Jazeera will keep. The network's programming likely will be a traditional mix of reported news pieces and in-studio interview and analysis. Al Jazeera won plaudits for its coverage of the Arab Spring and more recent violence in the Middle East, and even earned a commendation from Hillary Clinton, who called the network “real news.” In all likelihood, the network will make sweeping personnel changes, but in the best-case scenario, here’s a list of people who will work for the Emir of Qatar:

Eliot Spitzer
Joy Behar
Gavin Newsom
Jennifer Granholm
David Schuster
Sir David Frost

That last one is a trick: Sir David has been working for Al Jazeera English since 2005, creating such programs as “Frost Over The World” and “The Frost Interview.” Here he is doing a “Frost Interview” with Israeli president Shimon Peres last week. As absurd as it sounds, Al Jazeera English, which is based in Doha, will allegedly remain a separate entity from Al Jazeera America, providing 40 percent of the U.S. network’s programming.  

Will American viewers jump at the chance to watch this sort of programming? Does it matter? Al Jazeera America’s leadership seems to believe that with “large-scale resources” and “quality news programming,” it is now poised to conquer cable, a strategy that has not worked for CNN in decades. But the leaders of Al Jazeera have one clear advantage over Jeff Zucker and his ilk. In their bid to build a global news juggernaut, the Emir and his family have no shareholders to answer to. They can wait as long as they need and spend as much as they’d like. If cable operators refuse to renew their contracts, they can try to buy another foundering cable channel. There’s one possible out for the Oprah Winfrey Network.

All of the speculation about the future of Al Jazeera and Current TV neglects one important consideration: the past. Specifically, how will this affect Keith Olbermann? Gore and Hyatt canned Olbermann last fall, after failing in their costly bid to turn Current into a robust left-wing news network with him as their star. Amid complaints about car services and a refusal to work on major election nights, the two sides split and promptly sued each other. Olbermann asks for as much as $70 million in wages and equity compensation in his suit, and who knows, maybe Gore and Hyatt will be more inclined to settle now that they’re flush. 

Or perhaps there’ll be a good opportunity for Olbermann at Al Jazeera America. The Emir is hiring.

Rebecca Dana is a former media reporter for The Wall Street Journal, Newsweek and The Daily Beast. Her first book, Jujitsu Rabbi and the Godless Blonde, will be published by Putnam on January 24.