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 a sizable portion of the viewer reach it had been counting on from AT&T.
The news network, whose launch had been anticipated since Al Jazeera bought an existing channel in January, went live at 3 p.m. ET. on the lineup of four major cable and satellite TV distributors.
Several hours later, Al Jazeera America (AJAM) filed a lawsuit against another pay-TV provider, AT&T, after the telecom giant made an eleventh-hour decision Monday night to drop the channel from its U-Verse service by citing "contractual disputes." AT&T turned off the channel at 11:59 p.m. ET Monday, marring AJAM's programming and public relations campaign that had been in the works for months.
"Unfortunately, AT&T's decision to unilaterally delete Al Jazeera America presented us with circumstances that were untenable -- an affiliate that has willfully and knowingly breached its contractual obligations," AJAM said in a statement issued Tuesday night. "Al Jazeera America's strong hope is to resolve this matter quickly."
AT&T, which has about 5 million U-Verse customers, didn't provide details of their dispute, but said it "could not reach an agreement with the owner (Al Jazeera) that we believed provided value for our customers and our business."
In January, Al Jazeera paid $500 million to buy Current TV, a struggling cable channel founded by Al Gore. And it soon began winding down the network to install its own U.S. news programming that it hoped would be continuously carried by Current TV's cable-satellite distributors. Al Jazeera English, its global news operation for non-Arabic speaking countries, had limited distribution in the U.S. and was replaced here by AJAM.
Time Warner Cable dropped Current TV soon after the acquisition was completed, citing the channel's low ratings. The two are discussing a new contract.
AT&T said its decision wasn't hastily made and it notified customers through newspaper ads in July that it may stop carrying the Current TV-AJAM channel.
AJAM remains on Comcast, Verizon FiOS, DirecTV and Dish Network, with access to about 43 million households.
But the number of viewers who tuned into AJAM's launch is likely to be significantly lower. Alana Johnson, a Nielsen spokeswoman, said the viewer-measurement company didn't have viewership data available on Tuesday as it needs at least a day to process them.
AJAM kicked off programming Tuesday with an hour-long, taped introduction, anchored by Antonio Mora and Richelle Carey, that repeated what it has been saying for months - that it plans to focus on hard news and "real stories about real people" with reporters on the field and documentaries.
The introduction tape 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.
In a controversial decision that sparked outcries on social media, Al Jazeera also stopped streaming Al Jazeera English for viewers in the U.S. to appease cable-satellite distributors. Al Jazeera English reached fewer than five million U.S. households but live streaming of its shows had developed a loyal following from viewers seeking more extensive global news coverage.
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.