Al Jazeera English launches in first major US cable market

Cable viewers in the Washington DC area will finally be able to get Qatar-based Al Jazeera’s English language news channel. It’s the first major deal signed with an American cable TV company since the English version of Al Jazeera launched in the fall of 2006.
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HOUSTON, July 2, 2009 (MENASSAT) – The English-language cousin of the Qatar based news channel Al Jazeera launched yesterday in the Washington D.C. area after signing its first major U.S. cable deal with non-commercial MHz Networks last week.

The MHz deal means 2.3 million subscribers will now have access to the channel, adding to the 140 million households currently receiving Al Jazeera English worldwide.

Al Jazeera English is available in 40 countries, including Israel, but it’s the first time Al Jazeera English (AJE) has entered such a large US market, generally acknowledged as the world's most important English-language cable market.

Previously, AJE had been available only in two U.S. markets – Burlington, Vermont and Toledo, Ohio, and cable networks in the U.S. had historically refused to carry the channel because of its association with Al Jazeera’s Arabic language news channel.

High ranking members of George W. Bush’s administration, namely vice president Dick Cheney consistently accused Al Jazeera’s Arabic channel of “inciting terrorism,” calling it the “mouthpiece of Osama Bin Laden” because of its readiness to broadcast Bin Laden videos and audio tapes.

But Al Jazeera's director general, Wadah Khanfar, told Arabian Business that a more "benevolent political climate" had lessened the concerns of cable providers.

“I think the atmosphere is changing now. We have negotiations taking place with many cable companies in the United States and Canada and I hope that very soon we are going to hear a lot of good news,” he told the website.

“Starting now, we will have a growing audience in the United States.”

What the Americans want

Commenting on yesterday’s launch in Washington D.C., Phil Lawrie, director of global distribution for Al Jazeera said, “We know there is a great demand in the United States for AJE’s groundbreaking news and current affairs programming.”

He added, “Our website receives 22 million visits every month with over 50% coming from America, and our branded YouTube page is by far the most popular news site [on the video sharing site].”

According to Al Jazeera English’s corporate profile, “AJE aims to give voice to untold stories, promote debate and challenge established perspective from under-reported regions around the world.”

AJE is reported to be a top news choice for active U.S. military personnel, and it has developed a solid reputation for being an alternative to U.S. and European news outlets focusing much more attention on issues in the Arab and Muslim worlds as well as countries and events in the global south.

Previous debates

But despite AJE’s rapidly growing worldwide influence, controversy has surrounded previous attempts to enter the U.S. market.

In July of 2008, community members of Burlington, Vermont, held a community-wide debate on whether a small cable carrier Burlington Telecom should continue broadcasting AJE to its 39,000 community members.

At the time, Will from the pundit site KABOBfest wrote, “It is time Americans engage in the world and expose themselves to voices beyond the borders. Al Jazeera English represents just that…such questions should be raised in every community around the country – most of which don’t have televised access to AJE.”

Israeli lobby groups like the Israel Center of Vermont lobbied hard to keep AJE from broadcasting in Vermont, accusing the channel of inciting hate and promoting anti-Semitism, although many complainants admitted having never watched AJE.

Comcast, a cable company with a subscriber base of over 12 million people, dropped AJE one month prior to the channel's launch in 2006 saying "the already-saturated television market” prevented the channel from making it on their programming dial.

As for online response to the announcement of AJE’s arrival in a major US market, comments were generally positive on the websites reporting AJE’s launch.

ZEI, from Dubai wrote on Arabian Business(dot)com, “Kudos to Al Jazeera English for finally putting their foot into the American doorstep. As a devoted viewer of Al Jazeera English I am convinced the American audiences will get a fairer and clearer view of the world if they include this channel to their favorite list.”

New grounds

The Qatar-based news channel also applied to the Canadian-Radio television and Telecommunications Commission for permission to broadcast its content, although the CRTC had previously rejected a similar application from Al Jazeera’s Arabic news station.

Canadian Jewish groups indicated on June 30 that they would not oppose AJE’s introduction to the Canadian television landscape.

“Absolutely, Canadians should have access to this channel,” Julie Payne of Canadian Journalists for Free Expression told the Abu Dhabi-based paper, The National.

Meanwhile, Digital Production Middle East reported that mobile and web news service provider 1Cast announced AJE content would be added to its news offering, which currently includes organizations such as BBC World, CNBC, Reuters and Bloomberg.

“It’s a fascinating development that will allow audiences to view our news broadcasts - which often originate in places such as the streets of Pakistan or Baghdad - on a smart phone or via the web just seconds later in America,” Al Jazeera’s Lawrie said.

In his interview with Arabian Business(dot)com, Al Jazeera’s Khanfar said Al Jazeera’s network was interested in breaking into the New York City market as a next step.