Why doesn’t Foxtel run the Arabic news service Al Jazeera? It’s a question many Crikey readers have posed over the past few months, which is hardly surprising given the wealth of news offerings on pay television. There are news services from the US and Europe. Why not the Arab world?

Some have gone so far as to suggest that the exclusion of Al Jazeera is political. Not so, says Foxtel CEO Kim Williams. It’s pure commerce, and perception of audience demand. Williams told me:

“We are a customer-driven organisation and select channels on the basis of extensive customer research and what we believe will appeal to new and existing customers. It is expensive to add and sustain new channels and so we must necessarily be very careful to select channels with the greatest customer appeal or where there is a clear and evident gap in our coverage as was the case with the entire Next Generation product line-up we launched last year.

“We already have a wide range of news channels and our priority has been a commitment to expanding Australian news coverage (with Sky News Local and APAC last year) that has meant adding additional international news services has not been our focus. I should add that we have not identified significant demand for AJE in our research or in any advocacy to us at all.”

Surprisingly, Al Jazeera itself doesn’t seem too fussed about the matter. The editor-in-chief, well-known Australian journalist Max Uechtritz (soon to return to these shores), made it clear to me that he believed Al Jazeera would be a useful addition to offerings in Australia, but the higher ups in Al Jazeera seemingly didn’t want to comment.

I gather on the grapevine that there has been some contact between Al Jazeera and Foxtel, but apparently it could hardly be described as a negotiation. More of a statement of positions.

Meanwhile, Foxtel says that Al Jazeera is quite welcome to take advantage of its ACCC-approved access regime, under which channels can access the customer base of Foxtel, provided they pay the costs involved. Setanta, TVN, and soon Ovation already make use of these arrangements, but of course they have to pay, rather than being paid for their content.

The service is available via Austar as part of its starter package, the Foxtel rival that mainly caters for regional customers. You can also watch via the Live Station service (alongside the BBC, Bloomberg, CNN International and other stations) for a $4.99/month fee online and through an iPhone application. Community broadcaster TVS is also rebroadcasting a daily bulletin to Sydney viewers.

But on Foxtel, at least, there is little hope of Al Jazeera coming to your TV any time soon.

Peter Fray

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