Al-Jazeera plans to visit U.S.

NEW YORK — Al-Jazeera on Thursday started slowly taking the wraps off plans to enter the U.S. market with a round-the-clock English-language version of the Middle East newsie.

Execs at the Qatar-based cabler say they are starting talks with cable and satellite operators in hopes of launching in the U.S. in early 2006.

Cable operators told Daily Variety on Thursday that talks with Al-Jazeera are in the very early stages. Time Warner Cable said it hadn’t yet received a formal carriage proposal from the net; Cox Cable reps said they had not yet been approached either.

Al-Jazeera founder Emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, who is also the ruler of oil-rich Qatar, is bankrolling the network.

The as-yet-unspecified budget for the English-language offshoot will apparently allow the news channel to hire hundreds of journalists and producers over the next few months; HQ for the new network is under construction in Doha, capital of Qatar, as are branch broadcast centers in Washington, D.C.; London; and Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. The international feed will be broadcast from different time zones throughout the day from those centers.

New channel will offer coverage of world events, but with a special accent on the Mideast, Al-Jazeera Intl. commercial director Lindsey Oliver told Daily Variety.

“We have the advantage in the Middle East of having very good contacts. We’re established as a news channel there; we have access to stories that other channels don’t have the luxury of attaining in the region,” Oliver said.

Al-Jazeera reaches 50 million subscribers in the Middle East, added Oliver, a former senior VP of CNBC Europe.

Nigel Parsons, who is managing director of Al-Jazeera Intl., recently tapped Oliver to head the negotiations for cable carriage in the U.S. Oliver, who is British but based in Qatar, will make frequent trips to the States.

D.C. b’casts

While specifics of programming are still in planning stages, Oliver anticipates the channel will broadcast four to five hours from its Washington studio and follow a format similar to that of the Arabic-language version, with 30 minutes of news at the top of the hour followed by 30 minutes of interviews and analysis.

In primetime, the channel will build shows around its own personalities, much like its would-be competitors, CNN, Fox News, the BBC and ITN.

The channel signed CNN Intl. anchor Riz Khan in May to host a daily interview show that will originate from Washington when the channel debuts. Show will focus on world leaders, newsmakers and celebs and take calls from around the world. The web has also hired a number of journalists from the BBC and ITN to work for the London operation.

Oliver told Daily Variety that channel space is the biggest hurdle for the network as it tries to persuade cable and satellite operators to carry the digital service.

Grisly rep

But the channel faces another important obstacle: the pervasive belief that the Arabic-language channel broadcasts video of beheadings in Iraq.

Not so, Oliver said. The network is the recipient of tapes from terrorist organizations, including that of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, but only airs portions of the tapes similar to what is seen on American TV.

In fact, she said, while the network has been criticized in the U.S. as being a mouthpiece for terrorism, Al-Jazeera derives substantial income from the sale of that footage to American networks such as CNN and Fox News.

Unlike its Arabic-language counterpart, the international channel will carry advertising.

The Arabic-language channel is ad-free, save for spots for Qatar Airways. Net has been banned from one of the Arab world’s biggest markets, Saudi Arabia, which has threatened to expel any Al-Jazeera advertiser from the country, said spokesman Mark Holtzman.

Nevertheless, Al-Jazeera is cash-flow positive from subscription fees, Holtzman said, though for al-Thani, profits are presumably not the only motive.

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