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The channel from Doha making itself at home in the UK...

The launch of Al Jazeera Arabic on Freeview is just the latest of a number of expansions for the Doha-based broadcaster, following the Freeview launch of its English channel in 2011 and the launch of its HD counterpart - exclusively on Freeview - late last year.

With reports of a UK version of Al Jazeera English in the pipeline, the broadcaster is clearly planning to become a major player in the UK, responding to Sky's move in the other direction to compete with Al Jazeera on its home turf in the Middle East.

New headquarters in London's Shard skyscraper underline the investment the channel is making in its UK presence.

Some viewers may consider Al Jazeera to be just a news network, made famous over a decade ago during the second Gulf War and War in Afghanistan. But in recent years, the broadcaster has grown to encompass sports, documentary and children's channels, plus dedicated news channels for territories including the Balkans and USA, a far cry from its origins in 1996, when staff from the original BBC Arabic service launched the first programmes.

Its sport and children's services have in the past year lost their Al Jazeera branding - their sports channels operate under the beIN Sport name in numerous North American, European, Asian and Middle Eastern countries, and the Al Jazeera Children's channel on Sky is now known as Jeem TV.

Thanks to the rapid acquisition of sports rights, Al Jazeera Media Network channels now have a similar dominance in broadcasting in some countries as Sky does in the UK.

And although the rise and rise of BT Sport makes an appearance of beIN Sports in the UK unlikely in the near future, Al Jazeera News is making itself at home: despite not having a dedicated UK channel yet, the British-style presentation found on Al Jazeera English, along with familiar faces formerly seen on UK network TV means that viewers might find it easier to make the switch to Al Jazeera than they think.

In essence, the main problem at the moment is the name, where in some quarters it still has the "Skoda problem": the product might be OK, but the distinctively non-English name (it means "the island" in Arabic) and previous reputation put people off: the first a lot of people heard about Al Jazeera is when it broadcast material sent from terrorists during the War in Afganistan, and some still consider Al Jazeera as the channel that became the mouthpiece of terrorists. However, its coverage of the Middle East uprisings has helped change the perception of the channel in recent years, helping it gain some of its highest ratings.

The launch of its original, Arabic channel on UK terrestrial TV has come as a surprise (and gets one up on rival Al Arabiya, part of Vision2 way down on Freeview channel 230), and will definitely stay as a very niche service. But might this be Al Jazeera getting a head start in the UK prior to the BBC Arabic TV service becoming licence fee funded in April 2014?

As the BBC World Service, including BBC Arabic TV switch from Foreign & Commonwealth Office to UK TV licence fee funding later this year, there will definitely be a valid argument to make the various BBC language services more widely available to the people who are paying for the services. And if Al Jazeera Arabic can get a slot on Freeview, why can't BBC Arabic TV?

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  1. So long as they keep the International version of the English service along side a UK version (if it launches) then I don't mind, it's nice to have a choice.


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