Since it purchased Current TV at the beginning of the year, Al Jazeera has been building a large news organization in the US. With close to 1,000 employees, about a dozen bureaus around the country, and several high-profile hires, Al Jazeera America (AJA) is "more than ready" for its US launch on August 20th, says interim CEO Ehab Al Shihabi. Because it picked up Current's distribution, it will reach just shy of 50 million people at launch — but several big cable companies like Time Warner won't be airing the channel.
Shihabi says that the 24-hour channel will focus on hard news, telling journalists last week that "there will be less opinion, less yelling and fewer celebrity sightings." The channel, which is privately owned and funded by the government of Qatar, is also claiming it will eschew big profits by airing fewer commercials — six minutes per hour, less than half the industry standard. AJA will launch with a few well-known TV journalists as well, including Soledad O'Brian, David Shuster, and John Seigenthaler.
Al Jazeera has gained both respect and notoriety
Al Jazeera has gained both respect and notoriety for its coverage in the middle east — the former for more recent in-depth coverage and the latter for airing videos from Al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden. Despite that history, the network is sticking to the "Al Jazeera" branding for the US. Shihabi says that "75% of the people who didn’t watch Al Jazeera" have a negative impression of the brand, but that "90% of those who did watch" had a positive impression — "We are investing heavily in advertising and branding," Shahabi says.
AJA won't be focusing primarily on the middle east, however; instead it plans on devoting time to covering issues in the US. The network plans on airing fourteen hours of "daily live news" alongside more long-form reporting than what's aired on other cable channels. In fact, AJA executives haven't been shy about comparing themselves to other cable networks. Shahabi says that "we are not infotainment" and Al Jazeera America president Kate O'Brian says the network will "stay away from pundits and crazy celebrity news."
"We are not infotainment."
Whether that strategy will enable the network to gather and grow an audience remains to be seen. It will need to pick up reticent cable networks like Cablevision and Time Warner — the latter of which dropped Current TV and thus Al Jazeera America, but is in discussions to add AJA back. Al Jazeera English, which most people access over the internet, may shut down after the new network launches and already US viewers have seen live broadcasts blocked on YouTube.
Yet because it is privately owned, AJA may not need big ratings to stick around. Seigenthaler says he joined the networks in part because "they said they are not interested in ratings, they are interested in delivering the news." Shihabi claims there are 50 million Americans waiting for the kind of news he's promising to deliver, "the demand exists," he says. This coming Tuesday, we'll find out if he's right.