Al Jazeera English hopes coverage of Egypt will boost reach in U.S.

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Will the intense interest in the political upheaval in Egypt lead to the cable network Al Jazeera English, the CNN of the Arab world, becoming more available in U.S. homes?

That remains to be seen, but one door the network may want to knock on is Comcast’s, the nation’s largest cable operator, which serves about one out of every five TV homes in the country.

After all, as part of the FCC’s approval of Comcast’s takeover of NBC Universal, the cable giant made commitments to carry new independently owned channels. Maybe it could start with Al Jazeera English.

Launched in 2006, Al Jazeera English is a sister network to the Arabic-language Al Jazeera and has been unable to make headway with major cable and satellite operators in the U.S. Currently, Al Jazeera English is carried on cable systems in Vermont and Ohio that reach fewer than 100,000 homes.


Some of Al Jazeera’s programming is distributed to other cable networks that are carried by the big guys. For example, in the news-hungry market of Washington, D.C., Comcast carries a network called MHZ, which has Al Jazeera English content. Satellite broadcaster DirecTV distributes a channel called Link TV that also has programming from Al Jazeera English.

However, for most viewers the only way to see the channel is to go online, where it is streamed.

Besides Comcast, other big distributors that don’t carry the network include Time Warner Cable, DirecTV and Dish.

Al Jazeera English is hoping that its coverage of the crisis in Egypt will help win wider distribution in the U.S., but the network likely faces resistance for both business and political reasons.

Among the business reasons, cable and satellite operators often cite limited channel capacity -- although that didn’t stop Oprah Winfrey from securing a launch of her new channel OWN in more than 80 million homes.

The truth of the matter is that networks get on cable systems by either exerting leverage upon the system operator or granting the system operator an ownership stake.

Leverage, in this case, is a powerful personality like Winfrey who can use her name and a partnership with Discovery Communications to secure distribution. Ownership means selling a stake in the network to a distributor -- the cable system operator -- in return for carriage.

(Of course, it would be wrong for a cable operator to demand a piece of a network in return for carriage, but, hey, if a stake is offered by the operator, well that’s another post).

Unfortunately, Al Jazeera English has neither leverage nor much to entice in the way of ownership.

Among the political reasons to be wary of Al Jazeera English is that some distributors may fear a backlash from customers and politicians due to its connection to Al Jazeera. The Arabic-language network was criticized by the Bush administration in the wake of the 9/11 attacks for what was seen as giving a platform to Public Enemy No. 1: Osama bin Laden and the Taliban.

In an interview with the television trade magazine Multichannel News, Al Anstey, the managing director of Al Jazeera English, said, ‘myths and misconceptions about what Al Jazeera stands for’ have hindered distribution efforts. He added that ‘if you watch the content of Al Jazeera English, those misconceptions, if they apply, are immediately dispelled.’

Asked about carrying Al Jazeera English, a Comcast spokeswoman said only that the network’s programming is available through MHZ on its D.C. systems.

As long as Al Jazeera English is streamed online for free, it will be easy for cable and satellite operators to make a case not to carry it on their systems -- especially if Al Jazeera English wants to be paid. An Al Jazeera English executive noted that the channel is on the Internet in part because it has little distribution elsewhere in the U.S.

Al Jazeera English is taking its case to the streets. It posted an e-mail on its website that it wants people to send to their cable and satellite operators demanding carriage of the network.

‘Mainstream North American audiences remain in the dark,’ the site told readers in explaining why they should forward the e-mail, adding, ‘in a world that is growing increasingly smaller and more interconnected each day, it is more important than ever to have full access to news from around the world.’

-- Joe Flint

For the record: This post was updated to include the names of other large distributors that don’t carry Al Jazeera English.