English-language satcaster set for November launch

After months of delays, the long-awaited premiere of Al-Jazeera’s English-language satcaster is set for a November launch, with European distribution set and a U.S. cable deal soon to be announced.

Orginally supposed to launch last spring, Al-Jazeera Intl. (AJI) found its broadcast dates pushed back to summer, and then fall, as a result of technical difficulties — and amid ongoing chatter questioning AJI’s editorial independence from its controversial parent.

“I always took the rumors with a big pinch of salt,” says the newsie’s managing director, Nigel Parsons. “To be honest, I’ve always thought people would judge us by the product when we’re on the air. All the delays have been technical. To build four news centers from scratch is quite an achievement.”

Built at a reported cost of $1 billion, those four AJI global news centers are in London, Washington and Kuala Lumpor as well as Al-Jazeera’s Doha, Qatar headquarters.

The operation will also include 30 international news bureaus, all interconnected via high-def fiber optic cable.

Al-Jazeera execs are confident AJI will reach 30 million-40 million households at launch; their long-term goal is a global audience of up to 150 million.

“We’re pleased with the actual numbers of deals we’ve signed,” says Lindsey Oliver, AJI’s commercial director. “There’s also been a sea change in attitudes towards AJI in the States. They understand now that we’re not a propaganda channel.”

Of course, in the post-9/11 U.S., that latter assessment is certainly open to debate. But it will be put to the test soon enough, with AJI about to announce a distribution deal with a major U.S. cable operator.

The European part of the equation is set, too, with distribution deals established in the U.K., France, Germany, Italy, Greece, Poland and Australia.

And onscreen, AJI will boast talent including Dave Marash, David Frost and Riz Khan.

While the satcaster now seems ready for a November go, the path to the launchpad was certainly turbulent enough.

In August, AJI’s director of programs, Paul Gibb, left the satcaster. AJI officials said they simply weren’t able to come to contract terms with Gibbs. But the departure shook morale and stirred chatter over AJI’s ability to function as an autonomous news organization.

In March, Wadah Khanfar, previously Al-Jazeera’s managing director, was appointed director general of the entire network, including Al-Jazeera’s sports, kids and documentary channels.

Khanfar’s promotion as head honcho over all five channels also led some to question who calls the shots. It was Khanfar, for example, who announced in March that AJI’s launch would be delayed.

“I think we’ve had a remarkable amount of independence, but we have been working closer with the Arab channel,” Parsons says. “That’s just sensible operating. They know the Middle East better than we do while we’re probably stronger in other parts of the world. We’ve got 10 bureaus in Africa alone.”

Away from AJI, the Arab TV news market has become increasingly congested of late. Notable has been the number of non-Arab companies launching their own Arab newsies.

The BBC is set to open its Arab-language satcaster in 2007, funded to the tune of some £19 million ($35 million). Russia’s English-language Russia Today has announced its own plans for an Arab-language newsie set to start airing later this year, while French 24-hour newscaster CFII is expected to begin broadcasting in Arabic in the months ahead.

German pubcaster Deutsche Welle already offers Arabic TV programming for a few hours a day.

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