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Al Jazeera America launches as AT&T drops channel

11:55 AM, Aug 21, 2013   |    comments
(Photo: SAUL LOEB AFP/Getty Images)
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By Roger Yu, USA TODAY

Al Jazeera America, the latest offshoot of the Middle Eastern media empire, launched Tuesday afternoon with a flurry of live news and pre-taped segments, even as it lost about 10% of the viewer reach it had been counting on.

The new network, whose launch had been anticipated since Al Jazeera bought an existing channel in January, was turned on at 3 p.m. ET at about 43 million homes in the U.S.

The hour-long, taped introduction, anchored by Antonio Mora and Richelle Carey, largely repeated what the company has been saying for months - that it plans to focus on hard news and "real stories about real people."

It also flashed video promos of Hillary Clinton and Sen. John McCain lauding Al Jazeera's coverage and mocked Fox News with a clip of talking heads shouting on The O'Reilly Factor.

Al Jazeera America's reach - not the number of actual viewers - was five million fewer than it had forecast, because AT&T U-Verse dropped the channel at 11:59 p.m. Monday night.

In January, Al Jazeera paid $500 million to buy Current TV, a struggling cable channel founded by Al Gore, and began winding down the channel to install its own domestic news programming.

In a statement, AT&T confirmed that it "dropped the Current TV channel, and will not carry Al Jazeera America on U-verse due to contract disputes."

"We could not reach an agreement with the owner that we believed provided value for our customers and our business," said AT&T, which has about 5 million U-Verse customers but included Current TV only on premier packages.

Time Warner Cable also dropped Current TV at the time of Al Jazeera's acquisition. The two are discussing a new contract.

The four pay-TV providers that continue to carry the channel - Comcast, Verizon FiOS, DirecTV and Dish Network - reach about 43 million homes. But the number of viewers who saw AJAM's launch Tuesday is likely to be significantly lower.

Alana Johnson, a Nielsen spokeswoman, said the viewer-measurement company didn't have any viewership data available on Tuesday as it needs at least a day to process them.

The lack of advertising on AJAM was conspicuous. Only about six minutes of ads per hour were shown, including in-house promos. Vonage and Procter & Gamble were early sponsors.

"It's not unusual for a newly launched network to carry a lighter ad load as they get off the ground," said David Campanelli, senior vice president and director of National TV at Horizon Media, a media buyer firm. "This one, in particular, comes with additional questions for advertisers regarding the perception of the network by the general public. The challenge they face is to inform viewers as to what this network is about."

AJAM has maintained that its light load of ads is a deliberate strategy to air more news.The channel is owned by the oil-rich government of Qatar, which is believed to be more interested in prestige than profits from its new channel.

The challenges ahead did little to dampen the mood of AJAM's newsroom Tuesday. When Mora and Carey appeared on TV, the employees in its New York headquarters applauded in a standing ovation.


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