Al Jazeera America news channel to close up shop

January 13, 2016

Al Jazeera America, the low-rated cable news network that sought to take on Fox News and CNN, will shut down operations at the end of April, less than three years after going on the air, the network told its staff Wednesday in a surprise move.

The New York-based network, part of a media empire owned by the royal family of the Persian Gulf state of Qatar, launched in August 2013 after its parent company paid $500 million to buy Current TV, a struggling cable channel founded by former vice president Al Gore.

AJA hoped to be a straightforward, non-partisan alternative to other news channels and was often praised by news analysts for the thoroughness and objectivity of its reporting. It hired a number of TV news veterans as program hosts and managers, including people from NBC, CNN and Fox News.

But the channel ran into trouble even before it started. AT&T, a major cable-system owner, dropped it from its channel lineup over a contract dispute, cutting off access to several million homes. Time Warner Cable also dropped its predecessor, citing low ratings, several months before Al Jazeera America hit the air.

It then spent months rebuilding its distribution. As of Wednesday, it was available in about 64 million households, or about a third less than its major rivals.

It never gained traction in the ratings; some programs had such small audiences that the Nielsen rating service was unable to detect any viewers.

The channel was also wracked by turnover among its top executives, and a lawsuit filed last year by a former employee that alleged sexism and anti-Semitism in the workplace.

The news comes only nine months after Al Jazeera – “peninsula” in Arabic, reflecting Qatar’s landmass – said it was expanding its live programming. The channel added two hours of morning programming in March, anchoring its coverage from its New York headquarters and mixing in reports from its studios in London and Doha, Qatar.

It also comes a month after Al Jazeera America broadcast perhaps its best-known story – an undercover investigative report called “The Dark Side” that alleged the use of performance-enhancing drugs by star pro athletes. Among others, it said the wife of Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning received shipments of banned substances around the time in 2011 that Manning was recovering from a series of neck surgeries that threatened his playing career.

The documentary suggested, but did not say outright, that Manning, then with the Indianapolis Colts, was taking the drugs. Manning has denied using any banned substances.

Two of the athletes named in the story, Phillies first baseman Ryan Howard and Nationals first baseman Ryan Zimmerman, have sued the network, reporter Deborah Davies, and an athlete named Liam Collins who conducted undercover interviews, claiming libel and invasion of privacy.

Al Jazeera continues to maintain an Arabic-language channel and its English-language forerunner of Al Jazeera America called Al Jazeera English. Both channels are distributed outside the United States.

© 2016, The Washington Post

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