Qatar-based Al Jazeera finally has a toehold in Manhattan after months of persistent pressure on U.S cable and satellite systems.
Al Jazeera English (AJE) is now being simulcast in New York City 23 hours a day on RISE, a cable channel adjunct to WRNN, which is carried by Time Warner Cable and rival Verizon FiOS. The deal makes AJE available starting today on Time Warner Cable's channel 92, with FiOS channel 466 adding the feed in the coming days, for a total reach of 2 million New York area homes.
As part of its carriage contract, RISE must carry one hour of daily local programming; now, the other 23 hours will be a live feed of AJE. While the contract gives Al Jazeera a presence in a key U.S. market, it's hitting the Big Apple via a sublease deal as opposed to outright carriage deal, which means its opportunities for marketing and branding are hindered.
“It’s all about leverage in this business, and they don’t have any,” observed Paul Maxwell, a cable industry consultant, to the New York Times.
AJE received praise from the United States government and others during its coverage of the Arab Spring, but has been unable to secure direct distribution from any major U.S. cable or satellite company including Comcast, DirecTV or Dish Network.
“We will get on in the U.S.,” said Al Anstey, managing director, indicating to the NY Times that Al Jazeera isn’t asking for the usual per-subscriber fee — meaning they're willing to practically give it away, but still can't cut a direct deal. “Revenue is not our priority. It’s being seen.”
It helps that it's not, like most start-up TV channels, relying on those valuable per subscriber fees to survive, as AJE is funded by the Qatar government — which may be part of its U.S. image problem, that it's perceived as a propaganda channel.
Launching in 2006 as competition to CNN International and BBC Worldwide, Al Jazeera was considered during the Bush administration to be an anti-American propaganda machine for broadcasting Al Qaeda videotapes. Their offices in Afghanistan and Iraq were struck by American missiles, officially declared mistakes by the U.S. government.
AJE is available on television in over 100 countries, but until now, could only be watched in three U.S. cities: Washington D.C., Burlington, Vt., and Toledo, Ohio, which is home to America's biggest Muslim-American population. AJE's presence in Washington came from subletting channel space owned by MHz Networks, while Link TV and one public TV station in Los Angeles also carry them.
Anstey says “what we’re putting out is high-quality information, well told,” and tells the NYT that some 70,000 letters have been received by U.S. consumers eager to bring AJE to their communities.
“New York is a very important city. It’s looking at all directions on the globe and all directions are looking back at New York City. So it’s a truly global city. It’s got a very outward looking, diverse, intelligent audience — obviously an influential audience in some quarters as well. So it’s a key part of our strategy,” Anstey said to The Huffington Post.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton’s March comment that Al Jazeera carried “real news” and fewer “arguments between talking heads” and commercials than many U.S. channels caused a 600% increase in traffic to their website, according to Business Insider.
Senator John McCain (R-Arizona) concurred with his former presidential competitor, as reported in HuffPo: “What Al Jazeera has done is achieved something that all of us I think want to achieve, particularly as we grow older, and that is to make a contribution that will last and will be brought to future generations that lie ahead of us…these young people who were able to watch Al Jazeera and be inspired by the example of others is a remarkable achievement.”
Cox Communications, the only cable operator to respond to the NYT, stated that AJE's lack of carriage was “less about them and more indicative of the business environment… the incremental value of adding one channel to the hundreds in our lineup rarely offsets the broader challenges of rising programming costs and bandwidth management.”
As Al Jazeera faces rivals such as Al Arabiya for U.S. carriage, it's also available on YouTube, where it live-streamed the uprising in Egypt earlier this year.
“I think every American should have the right to watch Al Jazeera English in any medium they want,” said Amjad Atallah, the channel’s new bureau chief for the Americas. “As an American, what grates is that I’m prevented from watching something.”
The BBC, meanwhile, was hit by a 24-hour strike action today, with employees protesting at budget cuts that include the BBC World Service.