Al Jazeera has accused US cable firm AT&T of coming up with a “pretextual scheme” and having “acted in bad faith” after it refused to carry the Qatari broadcaster’s US channel at the 11 hour.
Lawyers for the Qatari broadcaster have claimed that AT&T’s decision to drop Al Jazeera America from its U-verse pay TV platform just hours before the channel went live on August 20, was to “simply pocket millions of dollars to which it was not entitled”.
AT&T has stated that it would not carry the channel because of a contract dispute. Lawyers for AT&T accuse Al Jazeera of having “mischaracterised the facts”.
Al Jazeera entered the US market when it acquired former US vice president Al Gore’s network Current TV for $500m in early 2013, which it has rebranded as Al Jazeera America. Its purchase of Current TV gave Al Jazeera access to about 50m US homes, although Time Warner Cable (TWC) quickly dropped the channel from its line-up. TWC says it is still in negotiations with Al Jazeera to carry its US channel.
In preparation for the launch, Al Jazeera America has put together a team of 900 employees and will operate out of 12 bureaus across the US. The broadcaster has also appointed ABC executive Kate O’Brian as its president and former CNN anchor Ali Velshi.
It will initially be available to about 49m households, although some experts believe that it will struggle to capture anywhere near this amount.
Claire Enders, head of UK-based Enders Analysis, said that Al Jazeera is a “tainted brand” in the US, based on the perception among the American public that it is “anti-Israel” and for its role in airing Al Qaeda videos during the Afghanistan war.
“It’s a very unattractive brand in the US,” she added. “Americans have very little interest in foreign news services anyway. The BBC, which is a very credible service, barely appears on the radar, despite having been distributed on cable systems for ten years.”
The launch has also been hit by internal strife within the network. In an email circulated to Al Jazeera’s top executives, the station’s senior political analyst Marwan Bishara claimed there were efforts by the US operation to distance itself from Doha in a bid to avoid being labelled “anti-American”, going so far as to employ mostly US citizens.
“How have we moved from the main idea that the strength of AJN (Al Jazeera News) lies in the diversity, plurality and even accents of its journalists to a channel where only Americans work?,” he asked.