Al Jazeera in English -- But Good Luck Finding It

Nov. 19, 2006 — -- Al Jazeera, the Arab world's leading broadcast network, launched its English-language channel this week with a slick and polished 24-hour newscast.

But while the world was watching, American viewers -- one of the channel's main targets -- were not. None of the major American cable or satellite providers chose to carry the signal.

Most Americans know Al Jazeera as the network that broadcasts Osama bin Laden's periodic messages. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld once called it, "vicious, inaccurate and inexcusable." But the man who runs Al Jazeera's English network, Wadah Khanfar, said that is a misperception.

"We have for one decade stood against authoritarian regimes in the region, and we have installed the idea of reform and democracy," he said.

On its first newscast, Al Jazeera reported on the re-election of President Joseph Kabila in Congo, the suicide rate among indigenous tribes in Brazil and the increasing traffic congestion in China. The broadcast was seen by 80 million households worldwide, but Americans were limited to a free 15-minute Internet trial.

The absence of Al Jazeera English in the U.S. could have more to do with economics than ideology.

"Cable is a regulated industry," said Tom Rosenstiel of the Project for Excellence in Journalism. "The government has not taken any steps to bar [Al Jazeera]. The marketplace for the moment is doing the talking. And the marketplace isn't much interested."

The cable company Comcast said in a written statement that it had "some preliminary discussions with Al Jazeera that did not resolve in any agreement."

Time Warner Cable said those who run the company "do not have any current plans to carry Al Jazeera English."

Until that changes, Al Jazeera English is available to most U.S. viewers only via the Internet, which Rosenstiel called a bad fit.

"Al Jazeera is going to have a very tough time online because it's really not a Website," he said. "It's a broadcast, and there is no history to suggest that basically watching TV on your computer is going to be very popular or attract much of an audience."

Al Jazeera English can be seen on television in the United States only by those who own a GlobeCast World TV dish. The dish costs $179, but once installed the service is available without monthly subscription.

Al Jazeera English is headquartered in Doha, Qatar, which is also home to the Arab language version. The English service has bureaus in London, Washington and Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

The channel has said that one of its main objectives is to offer balance to western news reports. And it has lured some heavy-hitters from the western media with a promise of editorial freedom.

"There were people who told me, 'You are running a risk,'" said former ABC News "Nightline" correspondent Dave Marash, who is now Al Jazeera's Washington anchor. "My answer is, 'The more you know about Al Jazeera, the smaller the risk that is.'"

British television personality David Frost was also lured to Al Jazeera English.

"I've never had such editorial control, editorial freedom, no censorship and so on," he said.

Al Jazeera's executives said they are willing to wait for American viewers. More important right now, they said, is to build their network's credibility in the western world.

They will be there, they said, when the U.S. is ready to listen.