Al Jazeera English may be coming to American television screens. The Qatar-based network is currently in talks with cable giants Comcast and Time Warner, creating a groundswell of enthusiasm among American news junkies and a collective groan from right-leaning conservative activists. At the moment, Al Jazeera English is only available on a handful of local cable outlets in Washington, D.C., Burlington, Vt., and a few other locales.
Executives from Al Jazeera were caught by the Philadelphia press visiting Comcast’s headquarters in the northeastern city. To be fair, Al Jazeera has been diligent in letting journalists know that it was lobbying for a Comcast slot. The network sent out a press release announcing that they handed over a massive pile of 13,000 letters from Americans who wanted to watch Al Jazeera English to Comcast executives:
[Al Jazeera English] arrived at Comcast’s HQ in Philadelphia with boxes of emails garnered from their online campaign to gain national carriage. The channel provided a facility on their website for Americans to email their local cable provider. Over 40,000 emails were lodged in the first few weeks of the campaign this month. 13,000 of these were for Comcast who requested that they all be printed out and delivered to them.
Other meetings were reportedly held with Time Warner and Cablevision. Distribution talks are ongoing.
Al Jazeera has organized a web-based promotional campaign called Demand Al Jazeera over the past few years in an attempt to boost its presence on the American cable scene. Despite the network’s impeccable news gathering chops, a widespread sentiment exists in the United States–especially among certain segments of the conservative movement and right-leaning pundits such as Bill O’Reilly–that Al Jazeera somehow aids and abets terrorists. In Philadelphia itself, Philadelphia magazine supported Al Jazeera’s attempts to get on Comcast with a piece explaining that Al Jazeera is not “anti-American.”
News coverage on Al Jazeera English self-consciously poses itself as being the voice of the “global south” and highlights regions often neglected by American or other Anglophone news organizations. Al Jazeera employs more staff in Latin America than CNN or the BBC and frequently reports on goings-on in subsaharan Africa and southeastern Asia. The network also tilts highbrow in a sort of New Yorker sense: It is hard to imagine CNN or Fox News airing a talk show where philosophers Slavoj Zizek and Tariq Ramadan debate the ramifications of modernity and the evolution of protest movements, for instance. Al Jazeera has also won accolades for its amazing on-the-ground reporting from the Arab Revolutions of 2011, with reporters and an excellent social media outreach effort gaining jaw-dropping footage from Cairo, Tunis, and other trouble spots.
Meanwhile, Al Jazeera English’s editorial stance often diverges from that of Al Jazeera Arabic, which sometimes appears to promote a pan-Arab rather than Global South outlook, and which hosted a religious talk show by Muslim Brotherhood leader Yusuf al-Qaradawi that expressed anti-American, anti-homosexual and anti-Jewish opinions. Al Jazeera English and Al Jazeera Arabic are editorially independent of each other and share only a common corporate structure; the bulk of Al Jazeera Arabic’s broadcasting is aimed at Arabic-speaking countries and expatriates abroad. However, Al Jazeera Arabic has also introduced a surprisingly persistent willingness to question government and authority into previously docile Arabic-language television news.
Both the English and Arabic networks have been accused by academic experts such as Philip Seib and Hugh Miles of functioning as a source of diplomatic leverage for the Qatari government–Al Jazeera is owned by Qatari Sheik Hamad bin Thamer al-Thani and maintains intimate ties to the royal family. Al Jazeera maintains headquarters in the Qatari capital of Doha and was founded by royal decree in 1996; the Emir of Kuwait, Sheik Hamid bin Khalifa al-Thani, also gave the network extensive financial support.
Despite its campaign, gaining a slot on American cable could prove difficult for Al Jazeera English. Channel listings on Comcast and Time Warner are dominated by a handful of media giants such as Time Warner (again), Scripps, and Discovery Networks that very much run an old boys’ network. Al Jazeera–though rich in influence with news professionals, academics, and politicians–is new arrival with little leverage and a potential market share that is small in numbers, with limited in television-watching hours. But the Arab Revolutions have turned it into a must-watch channel; if there was ever a time for Al Jazeera English to appear on American television screens, it is now.