Al Jazeera America launches, sues AT&T

1377041611000--gtf-522133764Al 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.

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