New cable network Al-Jazeera America introduced itself to viewers on Tuesday with reports on political strife in Egypt and the impact of climate change on US cities, shortly after a major pay TV distributor declined to carry the channel.
The decision by AT&T's U-verse pay-TV service stemmed from a contract dispute over terms to carry the new network, AT&T spokesman Mark Siegel said. Al-Jazeera responded by suing AT&T for breach of contract in Delaware Chancery Court.
Globally, Al-Jazeera is seen in more than 260 million homes in 130 countries. But the new US channel funded by the emir of Qatar has so far had difficulty getting distributors, in part because Al-Jazeera was perceived by some as being anti-American during the Iraq war.
Before AT&T's announcement, Al-Jazeera America said it would be available in more than 40 million homes, about 40 percent of US pay TV households and roughly half the reach of Time Warner Inc's CNN. U-verse was launched in 2006 and had 5 million video customers at the end of June in markets such as Texas and California.
"We could not reach an agreement with the owner that we believed provided value for our customers and our business," AT&T spokesman Siegel said.
Al-Jazeera America said in a statement AT&T had "unilaterally" deleted the network and "presented us with circumstances that were untenable - an affiliate that has willfully and knowingly breached its contractual obligations."
The network said it had "no choice" but to file a lawsuit over the matter.
Defining the new channel's mission clearly will be crucial for Al-Jazeera to gain a foothold in the United States, according to advertisers, executives and industry experts.
In its first hour at midafternoon, Al-Jazeera pledged to cover "issues that matter to America and the world beyond." Anchors said they would provide in-depth coverage of stories ignored by other media outlets, with bureaus in cities they considered underserved such as Nashville and Detroit.
Al-Jazeera America hired ABC news veteran Kate O'Brian to be its president and hired on-air talent like CNN veterans Ali Velshi and Soledad O'Brien.
Its news coverage kicked off with reports on Egypt, a Georgia elementary school shooting and wildfires in the western United States, topics covered by cable news competitors on Tuesday. Al-Jazeera America also reported on a hunger strike by inmates protesting conditions in California prisons and Kodak's plan to rebound from bankruptcy.
It turned to sports with an interview of retired slugger Gary Sheffield about baseball's steroids scandal. A show called "Inside Story" explored the impact of climate change on US cities and working conditions in Bangladeshi factories.
Audience ratings data were not yet available.
Media critic Howard Kurtz, speaking on rival Fox News Channel, said Al-Jazeera America's early coverage was "not much different, at least so far, than what you might see on Fox News, CNN or MSNBC." One top story on Egypt was "right down the middle" in terms of balance, he said.