The long-delayed sister channel to Al-Jazeera is set to make its debut this morning, but the new network's ability to build an audience in America is in doubt because major cable and satellite providers here have declined to carry the new television offering.
The new network — which, in a last-minute move, has apparently changed its name from Al-Jazeera International to Al-Jazeera English — announced its distribution outlets yesterday and proclaimed that it will have access to between 70 million and 80 million homes worldwide. However, in America, no cable operators have reported plans to carry the Qatar-based channel, and the two largest satellite providers have also opted out. Al-Jazeera English will be available through the Internet and a satellite company specializing in international television feeds.
A former ABC News correspondent who will be one of the main Washington anchors for the new network, David Marash, expressed some regret yesterday about the limited platform in America. "It's disappointing. Of course, you want to play to your home crowd if you can," he said.
Mr. Marash told The New York Sun that the distribution problems may give the network a slow start here but should become less important over time. "The cable-satellite deficit is a very temporary problem. I think in 10 years broadband through the Internet will be the distribution route of choice," he said.
The fledgling network continues to take flak from critics who fear it will mimic the original Al-Jazeera service, which has been accused repeatedly of being a mouthpiece for terrorist groups and for insurgents in Iraq.
"They've helped create violence, helped kill Americans, and helped create the civil war going on in Iraq," one critic, Clifford Kincaid, said. "Now, in addition to all the damage committed by Al-Jazeera Arabic, it is expanding. The only difference they have is some Western faces as window dressing."
Mr. Kincaid, who is an editor for a conservative press watchdog group, Accuracy in Media, said the new news outlet should receive close scrutiny from the American government."If Congress can review a foreign-owned company taking over American ports, they ought to take a look at the operation of a foreign-government sponsored television channel," he said.
Both the Arabic network, which went on the air in 1996, and the new English channel are funded by the family of the leader of Qatar, Sheik Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani.
Mr. Marash said he expects the concerns about the new channel to diminish once people actually get to see it. "I think there's been a lot of negative anticipation that is not in any way going to be rewarded," the journalist said. He said the new channel will offer "real network quality news but with a focus on the southern regions, Latin America, Africa, Asia, and the Middle East, somewhat at the expense of North America and Western Europe."
The roll-out of the new channel was delayed repeatedly. While some attributed the delays to tensions between staffers at the old and new channels, Al-Jazeera executives said linking state-of-the-art, high-definition TV equipment at regional broadcast centers in Doha, Kuala Lumpur, London, and Washington proved more difficult than anticipated.
Despite more than six months of delays, some of those issues have yet to be ironed out. The network had planned to originate about a quarter of its broadcast day from Washington, but Mr. Marash said plans now call for only two daily programs to come from his bureau at the outset, a half-hour newscast at 6 p.m. EST and a live discussion show at 1 p.m. featuring a former CNN International anchor, Riz Khan. The American bureau is supposed to pick up more duties "within weeks and months," Mr. Marash said.
American government officials are still debating how to deal with the original Al-Jazeera and its new cousin. Some senior officials at the Defense Department are known to be hostile to the network, while American diplomats are willing to engage with the Arabic channel, which has acquired a reputation for dealing with subjects that most state-controlled channels in the Arab world avoid.
One of the best-known broadcasters hired by the new channel is a longtime BBC interviewer, David Frost. According to British press accounts, Prime Minister Blair will be Mr. Frost's first interview subject on Al-Jazeera English.
British newspapers have also reported that, at a 2004 meeting, Mr. Blair persuaded President Bush to abandon plans to bomb Al-Jazeera's headquarters in Doha. Some officials have said the proposal was a joke, but two men in England believed to have leaked a document detailing the discussion are facing criminal charges under Britain's Official Secrets Act.
Al-Jazeera English will be available for free in America through a satellite feed carried by GlobeCast World TV, a subsidiary of France Telecom, which is partially owned by the French government. The new channel will fight for the English-language news audience in a field crowded with offerings from CNN, the BBC, Japan, Russia, and starting next month, France.