Al Jazeera in expansion mode with Current deal

Exec sez U.S. staff will double as news org targets domestic auds

The new Al Jazeera America is likely to mean a significant expansion of the Doha, Qatar media org in the U.S., a doubling of the size of its staff and a bet that U.S. audiences have an unfilled want of international news.

But a day after its acquisition of Current TV was announced, there were still many unanswered questions about what happens to the staff and employees of the channel led by Al Gore and Joel Hyatt, as well as to ongoing litigation involving the ill-fated hire by Current of Keith Olbermann.

A spokeswoman for Current said that “nothing is clear as of yet” as to what will happen to the employees of the network, but Al Jazeera has raised the prospect that they may join the nascent Al Jazeera America channel.

Bob Wheelock, executive producer, newsgathering for the Americas at Al Jazeera English, told Variety that the new channel will probably mean that they are anticipating probably having to double the staff,” adding that would put them at a staff of about 300 people in the United States. He said in an interview on KPCC’s “Airtalk” they “will inherit and integrate some of the Current TV staff, as applicable.”

He told Variety that Al Jazeera execs will meet with Current TV staff to gauge their skills and interest in joining the new venture.

“This is a day old,” he said. “There’s a whole lot of planning that needs to go on and production and looking to see what don’t we have, what aren’t we doing. We don’t want to just throw anything on the air. We’ve got a good product now.”

He added, “What we are, what we do is try to provide broadcast coverage that is editorially correct, not always politically correct.”

He emphasized that they are looking to increase coverage in Latin America, one thing they feel that has “made us different and unique.”

The sale to Al Jazeera did generate some controversy, although the source was not unexpected. On his radio show, Glenn Beck said that his BlazeTv made an inquiry with Gore’s office about making a bid for Current, and they were quickly rebuffed. Beck went on to slam Gore, saying that the former Vice President is “more ideologically aligned with Al Jazeera than an American broadcaster who believes in America.”

Wheelock said that Al Jazeera has overcome the perception that it is somehow anti-West.

“I’ve been asked this question all day long, to be honest,” he said. “The content stands for itself. We take viewers places they otherwise never will see. We’ve won numerous awards that we’re proud of. The appetite is there for content.”

The bigger problem, he said, has come from distribution. Al Jazeera estimates that it will go from 4.5 million to 41 million households in the U.S. Time Warner Cable, which had said it terminated its carriage agreement with Current, said on Thursday that “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.” It noted that Al Jazeera English is available in New York and Los Angeles markets as part of separate agreements with local broadcasters.

In Europe, he noted that Al Jazeera English has made “great inroads.” The channel has gained a reputation for not following the West like its rivals do, distinguishing itself in its reports from the developing world.

Last February, boosted by its coverage of the so-called Arab spring, the channel beat competition from Sky News and the BBC to nab news channel of the year for the first time at the Royal Television Society television journalism awards.

Al Jazeera English also won the RTS innovative news prize for its social media and Skype-based show “The Stream: Bahrain.”

RTS judges praised Al Jazeera English’s frontline reporting of the Arab spring, the Tahrir square protests in Egypt and being first on the scene to report the death of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi.

While audience size remains negligible (ratings are so small they are not measured by official U.K. ratings body BARB) the RTS prize was seen as confirmation of the net’s growing credibility. The channel, however, also has expanded into entertainment coverage. Among the familiar faces on the channel is David Frost, who recently landed an interview with Paul McCartney.

Launched in 2005, Current TV and its founders Gore and Hyatt gained recognition for an MTV-like format that relied on user-generated content, but they struggled to gain a foothold in the upper tiers of most cable lineups. Plans for an IPO were announced and then dropped, and an effort to remake the network with a series of progressive personalities stumbled with the ill-fated hiring and then firing of MSNBC alum Olbermann. Although Current continued to try to make a mark with a mix of other political and media figures, including Joy Behar, Eliot Spitzer, Cenk Uygur and Jennifer Granholm, the channel needed a breakout hit from which to become part of the daily conversation.

Current also sells a channel with a major piece of litigation pending, stemming from the termination of Olbermann last year. After the fallout, Olbermann and Current traded breach of contract lawsuits.

Olbermann’s suit sought a payout of $50 million to $70 million, along with unspecified damages, while Current’s suit claimed that they were paying a “princely sum” while he was delivering “a pauper’s performance in return.”

The Current spokeswoman said that she could not say whether Gore, Hyatt and the other owners of Current would bear the liability for the litigation, or whether it would be left to Al Jazeera. But it raises the prospect of a settlement, with a mediation session on the books in March.

Steve Clarke contributed to this report from London.