March 1, 2021

Al Jazeera English Arrives on N.Y. Cable

CNN had the gulf war. Fox News had the war on terror. And Al Jazeera English had the Arab Spring.

But six months after widespread protests erupted in the Middle East, the Qatar-based Al Jazeera has not gained distribution on any major cable or satellite systems in the United States. The channel’s supporters say they feel it has been blacklisted; the distributors say they have to contend with limited channel space.

Undeterred, Al Jazeera English executives say they are making headway. On Monday, the channel will be carried in New York City for the first time, though only by subletting space from a channel owner. The channel has a foothold in Washington through a similar arrangement.

“We will get on in the U.S.,” Al Anstey, the channel’s managing director, said confidently in an interview in Manhattan, where he came late last week to celebrate the carriage deal.

Al Jazeera English was lauded by the United States government and even by a few competitors for its broadcasts from Egypt and other Middle Eastern countries earlier this year. But it is finding out that cable and satellite distributors like Comcast, DirecTV and Dish Network wield an enormous amount of control over the channels that viewers in the United States can and cannot see. “It’s all about leverage in this business, and they don’t have any,” said Paul Maxwell, the head of a cable industry consulting firm.

Al Jazeera does not have a parent company with powerful assets, as the News Corporation did when it used the huge popularity of Fox News to gain channel space for a spinoff, Fox Business, a few years ago. Nor does it have proof that millions are clamoring to watch, as most Americans have not been exposed to the channel.

Reflecting what some distribution executives said on condition of anonymity, Mr. Maxwell suggested that the dearth of evident demand was the main reason for Al Jazeera’s being shut out. Still, he said, “I think it should be carried; there is a public interest reason for it.”

The channel was founded in 2006 as a competitor to CNN International and the BBC. It was an offshoot of Al Jazeera Arabic, the popular Arab satellite news network that was demonized by the Bush administration as a platform for anti-American propaganda, in part because it broadcast Al Qaeda videotapes. Furthering the tensions, American missiles struck Al Jazeera offices in Afghanistan in 2001 and in Iraq in 2003 during the wars in those countries. In both cases United States officials said the strikes were mistakes.

The tensions began to ease toward the end of the Bush administration. But Al Jazeera officials say they believe that American impressions of both the Arabic and the English channels were harmed. Early meetings with distributors were about correcting “myths and misperceptions” of the English channel, Mr. Anstey said. Now, he added, those myths never come up.

The channel and its lobbyists have worked hard to change perceptions in Washington and in the media out of a conviction, Mr. Anstey said, that once people watch Al Jazeera English, they come to recognize that “what we’re putting out is high-quality information, well told.”

The lobbying effort was helped by the channel’s exhaustive and in some cases exclusive coverage of the protests in Tunisia, Egypt and elsewhere this year. Al Jazeera immediately began an advertising campaign and encouraged viewers to write to United States distributors to demand carriage, and Mr. Anstey traveled to the United States to meet with distributors like Comcast and DirecTV.

“We had some very fruitful meetings,” he said over a double espresso at the Grand Hyatt in Midtown Manhattan last week. “We’re making some very good headway.”

He disputed the suggestion that the channel was not in demand, citing 70,000 supporter letters that were sent to distributors via the Al Jazeera Web site. He and others at the channel were electrified in March when Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton labeled Al Jazeera “real news” and contrasted it with the commercials and “arguments between talking heads” on United States-based channels. Ms. Clinton’s comments raised the ire of some conservatives, but overall criticism of the channel has been limited.

The country’s biggest cable and satellite companies each declined requests for interviews about Al Jazeera last week; most cited policies against talking about any specific carriage decisions. But they expressed no public concerns about Al Jazeera’s content.

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