2ND UPDATE, 6:45 PM: Al Jazeera America has released a statement about its lawsuit (read here) against AT&T: “Al Jazeera America made a decision to seek judicial intervention in its dispute with AT&T,” the network said. “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. Accordingly, we had no choice but to take this action and to enforce Al Jazeera America’s rights under its agreement with AT&T — and to compel AT&T to do the right thing. Al Jazeera America’s strong hope is to resolve this matter quickly so that AT&T’s customers will have access to our unbiased, fact-based and in depth coverage of the news that is important to Americans.”
UPDATE, 5:45 PM: Al Jazeera has sued AT&T for refusing to carry the Qatar-based company’s new Al Jazeera America as part of its pay TV service, claiming AT&T is violating a deal it had with Al Jazeera’s U.S. division, according to a filing in Delaware Chancery Court. AT&T officials’ decision amounts to a “wrongful termination of an affiliation agreement,” Al Jazeera said in the filing, which accompanied a sealed complaint, Bloomberg reported late this afternoon. Details on the case came from a cover sheet that contained a brief description of the network’s claims, Bloomberg reported.AT&T announced shortly before the new network’s launch this afternoon that it had dropped Al Gore’s Current TV channel last night, and would not carry Al Jazeera America, on U-verse due to contract disputes. Al Jazeera had paid $500 million for Current TV in January and replaced it with Al Jazeera America. “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,” a rep for Al Jazeera told Bloomberg.
PREVIOUSLY: “Al Jazeera viewership is going up in the United States because it’s real news,” RNC’s least favorite miniseries heroine Hillary Clinton explained in an old news clip that Al Jazeera America dredged up to show in its first hour of on-air existence this afternoon. “What Al Jazeera has done is achieve something that all of us … want to achieve and that is to make a contribution,” added Sen. John McCain, standing in front of a backdrop plastered with the new network’s name.
“We are here to tell the story, the way it happens — as it happens,” on-air talent Antonio Mora and Richelle Carey told viewers in the network’s opening moments. Voice-over Guy jumped in to tell viewers it’s creating “original American programming, from New York to San Francisco, with a rich mix of content “from home and around the world, because journalistic integrity knows no borders” as a guy rides by on a motorcycle sporting antlers on his helmet, representing America. Congratulations if you chose “integrity” as your drinking-game word for the network’s first hour of on-air life, though “community” also was a big player, and “Nashville” a surprising contender in that first hour, which wasn’t so much a news program as a one-hour infomercial for the network, during which were introduced some of its on-air personalities, including Joie Chen, Mora, Carey, Ali Velshi, etc.
Chen, who’s anchoring the network’s evening news program America Tonight, got by far the most airtime in the first hour, talking about “great storytelling,” “great journalism” and “great opportunity.” Added Velshi, who’s hosting new Real Money, “It’s about exposition.” Although there was loads of talk about the network’s Nashville bureau in that first hour — one of 12 around the country and also including Washington D.C., Chicago, Detroit, Los Angeles, Seattle, New Orleans, Dallas, Denver, Miami, and San Francisco — the network pointed out proudly, over a shot of the Statue of Liberty, that it will be headquartered in New York City, the “media center of America” and the cultural center of the world. New York’s also one of the places you could not see the launch — because Time Warner Cable announced back when Al Gore’s low-budget network Current TV was being sold to Al Jazeera to create the new network that this is not what it had signed on for. The two sides are still talking, Al Jazeera’s interim CEO said in a recent phone news conference call with the press.
(AT&T U-verse joined Time Warner Cable late last night, citing contract disputes dating back to the channel’s time as Current TV, an AT&T spokesman said this afternoon. “We 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,” AT&T said. AT&T U-verse, which has about 5 million subscribers nationwide, said it dropped Current TV at 11:59 PM ET last night — that’s just 15 hours before Al Jazeera America launched in that channel spot in what was to be about 40 million homes. On the Al Jazeera America website, the network still said it is available on the service at launch time.)
A great deal of time in the first hour of the network’s life was spent listening to Americans who are unhappy with current TV news choices:
“I’m always amazed at how American-centric the news is here, and I’m not sure that it’s always the same in other countries,” said a random guy in Manhattan who was wearing a Dairy Queen T-shirt and holding a Starbucks coffee. “I don’t always feel like we’re getting fed the truth and the whole story,” added a heavily tatted guy in a Nashville bar.
Speaking of the whole story: In this getting-acquainted hour of Al Jazeera America, viewers were told the parent media company launched in 1996 and “global media” was forever changed. They also were told that Al Jazeera English launched about a decade later. They were not told Al Jazeera is part of an international news group funded by the Qatar royal family or that, in July, more than a dozen Al Jazeera staffers at its network in Egypt resigned, charging the network with bias in its coverage of the Muslim Brotherhood.
“I don’t pay it a lot of attention and I don’t have a lot of understanding — I know it has something to do with the Middle East,” a Nashville hairstylist who calls himself Mr. 24/7 said about Al Jazeera America. Nashville, Mr. 24/7 explained, is not a trend-setting city, though he thinks that may change now that AJA’s in town.
As promised, Al Jazeera America has very few ads. The network’s very first: Gillette Fusion ProGlide Razor: “The best a man can get.”
Finally, after one hour of meet-and-greet, the new network got down to the news, anchored by former CNN regular Tony Harris. The network made a point of leading with nearly seven minutes — an eternity in the TV news business — about the escalating political crisis in Egypt. This was a strong statement, in TV news circles. Then, a lengthy piece on the wildfires in the western US, including a bit about the military aircraft used to help firefighters battle the flames. After the latest on the NSA leaks, a Vonage ad and a report on the weeks-old hunger strike at prisons across California, they head into a report on the difficulties being experienced by JC Penney. Harris threw to his former CNN colleague Velshi.
“Great to be working with you again — I missed it!” Velshi said happily.