By Daniel Shane
Qatari broadcaster claims AT&T’s 11th hour decision not to carry US channel in violation of agreement
Al Jazeera has sued US cable operator AT&T over its 11 hour refusal to carry the Qatari broadcaster’s new American network on its pay TV service.
A filing at a US court by Al Jazeera claims that AT&T’s decision not to broadcast the channel is in violation of an agreement between the two parties. AT&T said on August 19 that it would not be carrying the news channel on its paid-for U-verse service due to a contract dispute, with Al Jazeera beginning transmission on the 20. U-verse has about 5m customers across the US.
In Al Jazeera’s filing at Delware Chancery Court, Al Jazeera said AT&T’s actions amounted to a “wrongful termination of an affiliation agreement”.
In an emailed statement to major news services, an AT&T spokesperson said that it had made the decision not carry Al Jazeera due to “our inability to come to terms on a new agreement and due to certain breaches of the existing agreement”.
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.
Al Jazeera America went live on Tuesday at 15:00 US eastern time, beginning with ‘This is Al Jazeera: Preview Hour’, followed by news headlines.