Technical difficulties

Dan Caterinicchia
Al Jazeera International has yet to find a U.S. TV distributor for the English-language network it plans to introduce in two months.

Known worldwide for its Arabic news station, Al Jazeera has been seeking an American cable, satellite or telecommunications provider for about a year but has received unsatisfactory offers, said Lindsey Oliver, commercial director for the Qatari company.

Al Jazeera's English-language network will be available in 40 million households in Britain, France, Germany, Australia, and parts of Africa and Asia when it starts broadcasting in late May, she said.

"I know I've got distribution in the States," Ms. Oliver said, but she declined to estimate how many U.S. homes Al Jazeera would reach.

The main sticking point is a stipulation from cable providers that Al Jazeera cannot stream its material live on the Internet. "There's an 'either/or' attitude in the cable industry," she said.

The digital platforms in the United States are nearly saturated, putting cable operators in a powerful position, Ms. Oliver said.

In Europe, she said, digital space usually is available if an analog signal is not.

It is rare for a new channel to have its own streaming rights. Al Jazeera shoots much of its own material and commissions most of the rest. It has not had to give up Internet distribution in other countries, Ms. Oliver said.

She would not offer details about U.S. offers but said satellite providers EchoStar Communications Corp.'s Dish Network and DirecTV Inc. are more open to a deal than cable operators. She also has spoken with Verizon Communications Inc. and AT&T Inc. about their fledgling TV offerings.

Placement of the network has been another stumbling block. Distributors see Al Jazeera as part of an ethnic tier of paid programming but the English-language network is targeting mainstream news viewers, Ms. Oliver said.

Al Jazeera faces stiff competition in the news category from established U.S. outlets such as CNN, MSNBC and Fox News, as well as international offerings from EuroNews and BBC World News, said Simon Applebaum, editor at large of CableWorld magazine.

Al Jazeera must convince U.S. distributors that "we're not what you think our parent is and we'll have objective coverage," Mr. Applebaum said.

Distributors want to provide new channels to attract subscribers but also want to get those customers to sign up for premium services such as video on demand, he said. Ms. Oliver is optimistic that a deal will be reached before Al Jazeera begins English-language broadcasts.

She said she was not aware of any problems finding advertisers for the network, although that was not her focus area.

Mostapha Saout, director of Allied Media Corp., an Alexandria marketing firm that works with ethnic media outlets placing advertisements, said sales for Al Jazeera have been difficult.

"The U.S. institutions don't want to get too close to them politically," Mr. Saout said, adding that Al Jazeera officials insist on screening all ads to ensure they match the network's political bent. "

Viewers should decide for themselves, said Rosental Alves, Knight professor in international journalism at the University of Texas at Austin.

"There are lots of myths and assumptions about Al Jazeera's role that are not very well-informed," he said. "They're known as an enemy of the U.S. when they were the first network in the Middle East to apply the Western principles of journalism. This is an opportunity to really see what they are about."

 
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