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More Messages: You Can Call Them Al-Jazeera

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Al-Jazeera's English-language channel debuted today -- not that many Americans will get a chance to check it out for themselves. Right now, the best way for the average person to eyeball what's being offered is to visit Al-Jazeera's website. That's because every major U.S. cable provider is currently eschewing the service, with almost all sizable satellite providers doing likewise -- a situation that Al-Jazeera was apparently still scrambling to avoid mere weeks before the launch.

Evidence of this situation comes courtesy of Gabriel Elizondo (pictured), a former Channel 7 assignment editor who was hired by Al-Jazeera as a programming producer last year; the Message column about him can be accessed by clicking here. On October 31, Elizondo passed along a press release announcing that Al-Jazeera English would begin broadcasting on November 15. When I followed up with questions about whether viewers in Denver would be able to receive the channel, he referred my query to someone in the net's public relations department. Shortly thereafter, a rep called to say that he couldn't say anything. Negotiations were ongoing, he noted, and he couldn't comment until the proper folks had signed on the line that is dotted.

Further details didn't arrive until yesterday, when the Al-Jazeera press office sent out a release listing where the English channel would be available, and by what means. The roster was lengthy: Countries from Afghanistan to Uganda were represented, the listings for Germany and France showed over a half-dozen providers, and even Israel popped up. Yet the American entry was underwhelming. Only GlobeCast, Fision, Jump TV and VDC -- all relatively minor players -- had made a deal. And while a live stream can be found on the aforementioned Al-Jazeera site, it's only being offered for free on a trial basis at 56K; those wishing to utilize broadband speed have to subscribe.

The programming I watched this morning certainly didn't seem radical in any way. Rather, the tone was very similar to that associated with the BBC. It was straightforward, dry and crisp, albeit with a heavier emphasis on news in so-called third-world countries that typically are only covered here in the event of natural disasters or genocide -- and sometimes not even then.

Of course, there was no way to judge from this modest sample whether Al-Jazeera English tilts to one ideological direction or another. And because the current administration has successfully managed to cast the channel's parent, Al-Jazeera International, as Terrorist TV, only those Americans willing to pay extra will be able to judge for themselves. That number may include many of Elizondo's friends, family members and colleagues. But for now, at least, they may be joined by a mere handful of others in the States. -- Michael Roberts


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