Comcast backs away from Arab net

LONDON — Al-Jazeera Intl. has all but conceded defeat in its effort to gain U.S. distribution in time for its worldwide launch Wednesday.

Execs at the nascent English-language offshoot of the Arab broadcaster said Comcast Communications pulled the plug on talks Monday on a deal the net considered essential to gaining a beachhead in the U.S.

The Associated Press last week reported Comcast had pulled out of talks but, in fact, negotiations continued, with Comcast offering to roll out the channel regionally. Comcast is the dominant operator in the Detroit area, which has one of the nation’s largest Arab-American populations.

But AJI execs were holding out for a full rollout across all of Comcast’s 12.1 million digital subscribers (Comcast has 24 million digital and analog subs), and they believed a deal was imminent.

“We thought we were just awaiting signatures. We feel like we’ve been led down the garden path. It’s a setback for us in the States, but I don’t want this to overshadow the fact we’ve had phenomenal figures in the rest of the world,” said one AJI employee who insisted on anonymity.

Sources within AJI speculated the reasons for the pullout had to do with U.S. uncertainty about Al-Jazeera’s editorial agenda. Negative portrayals of the situation in Iraq are widely thought to have contributed to the Democratic sweep of the midterm elections.

But Comcast denied the decision had anything to do with politics. “It comes down to a capacity question. We’re not adding a lot of new channels,” said Comcast spokeswoman Jenni Moyer.

As of last week, Al-Jazeera reportedly also was in talks with Cox Communications, but those won’t come to fruition before Wednesday.

Al-Jazeera also had hoped to get carriage on one of the two major satellite TV operators, DirecTV or Dish Network. Dish wants to carry AJI on its Arab-language tier, where it carries the Arabic Al-Jazeera. DirecTV doesn’t carry either net, but said it is “keeping options open.”

Even without U.S. distribution, Stateside auds will be able to see the channel on broadband.

AJI execs confirmed they will launch with access to 70 million households worldwide, nearly double their initial target of 40 million.

Distribution deals have been inked in most major territories, including the U.K., France, Germany, Italy, Greece, Poland and Australia. AJI execs eventually hope to reach 150 million households worldwide.

AJI’s journey to get on the tube has been beset by delays. Originally supposed to launch in spring, its broadcast dates were pushed back to summer, and then fall, as a result of technical difficulties.

The network hired Brit broadcasting legend David Frost, CNN anchor Riz Khan and former “Nightline” correspondent Dave Marash, which generated headlines, but that apparently wasn’t enough to assuage wary U.S. operators.

Backroom shuffles also have added to the uncertainty.

In March, Wadah Khanfar, previously managing director of the Arabic-language newscaster, was appointed director general of the entire Al-Jazeera network including AJI, while AJI director of programs Paul Gibb unexpectedly quit in August.

That said, with more than 30 international news bureaus and four AJI global news centers based in Doha, London, Washington and Kuala Lumpur, AJI is attempting to deliver on execs’ claims that it is the world’s first truly global news channel.

(Michael Learmonth in New York contributed to this report.)

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