New TV news networks with truly global designs don't get launched too often.
They're hugely expensive to staff and operate, and their success involves negotiating with cable carriers in different countries with different audiences and different agendas. And frankly, the need for their existence is always questioned - at least in the beginning - more than it is applauded.
So it was certifiably noteworthy when, after several months' delay, Al-Jazeera English (AJE) finally launched in mid-November, reportedly to 80 million homes worldwide.
As the English-speaking offshoot of the famously Arab-centric original, the network was long-awaited by supporters, detractors, and the merely curious alike.
The success or failure of the venture is more important than that of most media startups. If AJE gains a sustainable foothold in the US market, it will be the most revolutionary thing to hit the news business since Fox News Channel and will fundamentally reshape the way that advertisers, politicians, and the media itself relates to Middle Eastern people around the world.
Of course, gaining a sustainable foothold in the US will be a tall order for AJE, primarily because US viewers can't get the station on their televisions. Though the station was delayed while it was tied up in negotiations with cable companies like Comcast, as of its launch, no one had agreed to carry it in the US. To see the first day's programming, US residents had to log on to the station's Web site to watch streaming video. The channel has said that it is continuing to seek its first deal, but as stumbling blocks go for a new TV network, being shut out from the medium in one of the most important markets is a large one.
For Americans, a clear assessment of AJE's impact is hard to come by. The political overtones of the station's name still loom over what should be a discussion on how to tap into AJE's valuable penetration into the English-speaking, non-American demographic. For that audience is the one that determines our nation's global reputation - and that reputation today is terrible.
At the same time, AJE must make it a strong priority to get its offering in front of American eyeballs. True, the entire English-speaking world is its audience, and a big enough one that the station may be able to make a go of it without depending on US revenue. But here is where the media players play, and if its news cannot compete head-to-head in this country, AJE is forgoing much of its potential impact on the public discussion.
Ibrahim Hooper, communications director for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, says AJE's potential impact on the US is huge, but it will take a groundswell of support to make sure the station is seen.
"If the American public is exposed to a network with a different perspective on international events, I think that will add to the debate... that's going on at the international level," he says. "If people let their cable companies know... that they do want to hear different perspectives on international events, that could move the process forward."
Politics are clearly playing a part in the channel's absence from American TV sets. But that should not stop AJE. A well-managed PR campaign to build public demand in the US could go a long way toward providing leverage in discussions with cable companies, who are even more loathe to bypass a profit than they are to stir up political controversy.
Neither AJE's press office nor its PR agency, Brown Lloyd James, returned messages seeking comment before press time. But the question must be asked: Why go to the trouble of starting an English-language station if you remain locked out of the most important English-language market in the world?