Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Let the sun shine in

“Maybe in English we all can talk peace,” said the Middle Eastern leader interviewed in the first hours of the first day of Al Jazeera’s new English-language service.

The speaker wasn't a terrorist, imam or potentate trying to leverage the network as a slick new Arab propaganda tool. He was Shimon Peres, the prime minister of Israel.

No one could have made a simpler or more eloquent case for why this important new network should be carried by the major North American multi-channel television services that so far have boycotted it.

Although the English version of Al Jazeera is available in some 80 million homes around the world, no major cable TV or satellite operator is carrying it in the United States or Canada. (The service is available online through a few subscription services and a choppy free feed at the network’s web site.)

In contrast to the near-blackout of the English-language feed of Al Jazeera in North America, you can see it in Australia, Belgium, Bosnia, Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, Denmark, Egypt, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Ghana, Greece, Honduras, Hong Kong, Hungary, Indonesia, Israel, Italy, Jordan, Kenya, Kuwait, Latvia, Lebanon, Lithuania, Malaysia, Maldives, Malta, Morocco, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Qatar, Romania, Slovakia, South Africa, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Thailand, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, the United Kingdom and Uganda.

At a time when digital technology makes it possible to offer a virtually unlimited number of channels on all but the most antique cable TV systems, there is no excuse for operators to deny carriage to Al Jazeera – other than the obvious commercial fear or political loathing that its coverage might engender.

While cable and satellite operators might balk at the expense of adding another channel to their basic services, they easily could sell Al Jazeera as an individual pay channel or as part of a premium-priced service tier. So, the economic argument doesn’t wash.

As a former cable television executive, I was proud of the industry’s commitment to launching and supporting C-Span, the public affairs network. Although windy congressional deliberations and wonk-rich chitchat hardly make for everybody’s idea of must-see TV, the network sheds invaluable light on the political process and its consequences.

Al Jazeera’s coverage of the inflamed Middle East most certainly will unsettle or outrage us, showing us things we don’t want to see, telling us things we don’t want to hear and perhaps fearing things we don’t want to fear.

But it is information we desperately need to have, because Western correspondents, for all their bravery and good intentions, simply cannot tell us what we need to know.

Instantaneous global communication is the miracle of our age. Every now and then, we have the opportunity to put something on television that’s a bit more meaningful than The Hottest Mom in America.

This is one of those times.