January 14, 2013

Al Jazeera buys US cable channel


The news that Al Jazeera, the Qatar-based news organization, recently bought Channel TV, a cable channel founded in 2005 by Al Gore and Joel Hyatt, has occasioned a small amount of flurried response in the US media. The deal, for $500 million, was announced on January 2nd and will give Al Jazeera access to the American cable market in a way that the company has long tried for, but could not get because of Bush-era hatred of the outlet’s coverage of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars. This will be the first time that an international broadcaster has taken over an American news network, and Vivian Salama has covered the history of Al Jazeera, the implications of the buy, and some of the current nature of the network in a long article over at the Columbia Journalism Review. One interesting detail is that Al Jazeera has actually been available for a while now from a couple of cable providers in the US — the first provider to carry it was Ohio’s Buckeye Cable System in 2006 and it was soon followed by a Burlington, VT network:

In 2007, Burlington Telecom, a small, publicly owned fiber optic network, opted to include Al Jazeera in its program rundown as airing it was in accordance with the Cable TV Channel Carriage Policy, the guidelines dictating the station’s right to carry certain programs. Executives with the cable provider noted that the decision was driven almost entirely by competitive edge. “We thought, here’s an opportunity to differentiate ourselves from our main competitor,” Richard Donnelly, sales and marketing manager of Burlington Telecom, told Salon.com last year. “But I’m not naïve. I knew there would be controversy.”

Controversy did follow, and the case went back and forth, with the network at one point deciding to drop Al Jazeera. But this

sparked outrage among an even greater number of local residents in this liberal New England city. The city’s mayor declared the issue the subject of a town hall meeting. After two public meetings, an oversight committee decided that Burlington Telecom should continue to offer Al Jazeera as part of certain cable packages.

And like a matryoshka doll, behind this story is the story of Burlington Telecom, a small publicly owned network, whose decision to pick up Al Jazeera was detailed by Shakuntala Rao in the American Journalism Review a couple of years ago. BT was Burlington’s response to the cable giant Adelphia, which had a monopoly in the area and was charging increasingly high prices. Two mayors of the city made the alternative happen:

As mayor of Burlington for eight years in the ’80s, Bernie Sanders, a self-proclaimed Socialist, set the stage for visionary change: a municipal fiber-optics information roadway that would connect every local household, library, school, government and business.

But it was Sanders’ successor, Peter Clavelle, a Progressive, who, following two referenda, decided to turn that dream into reality. After surmounting several financial and regulatory hitches and Adelphia’s many attempted roadblocks, BT went on air in February 2006. It has grown quickly, providing residents with Internet, phone and cable services for some of the lowest costs in the country.

The Channel TV buy has produced some predictable foaming at the mouth, but for the most part American viewers seem ready to welcome Al Jazeera America (the network’s new name), if only for the chance to see it and judge for themselves. And Al Jazeera’s English-language branch has been garnering praise for years from many sources, most recently for its coverage of the Arab Spring. In an article on the deal in the Washington Post, Dominic Basulto points out that the network has even been in the vanguard:

By virtue of being locked out of the U.S. cable TV market for so long (mostly at the behest of the George W. Bush administration), Al-Jazeera learned to embrace the Internet in ways that have transformed it into one of the most modern, progressive video news organizations in the world. Take Al-Jazeera’s The Stream, for example. When it launched in 2011, Fast Company lauded it as ”the most aggressive integration of social media into a live news program to date.” In just the first few days of 2013, The Stream has fostered discussions around the gang rape tragedy in New Delhi and political developments in Egypt and Syria.

I think it’s safe to say that this is a deal that may in fact significantly change the US media landscape, and one hopes, if the network can maintain journalistic independence from the Qatari government, for the better.





Sal Robinson is a former Melville House editor. She's also the co-founder of the Bridge Series, a reading series focused on translation.