At Mipcom, Al-Jazeera fights for global acceptance

CANNES — The battle of Baghdad was perilous for all newsies, including controversial Arabic channel Al-Jazeera. But the outfit’s plans to launch an international English-language service may prove equally treacherous.

For one thing, there’s likely to be battle fatigue by the targeted public, which is already showing signs of wanting the Iraq war — the event that catapulted the news net to center stage in the first place — to be over and out.

For another, younger viewers, especially in the U.S., prefer their news delivered with tongue in cheek rather than with earnest advocacy.

That was the backdrop for a foray to Mipcom last week by top-level execs of the Al-Jazeera Intl. team, who were in Cannes to firm up relationships, scour co-production partnerships and commission indie producers to supply shows.

None of the execs would elaborate on the budget allotted to the international service by Al-Jazeera’s chief backer, the emir of Qatar.

The main aim of the channel’s hierarchy at the moment, in the words of its commercial director Lindsey Oliver, is to “get it out there in front of people even before necessarily monetizing it.”

So far, Oliver says, no carriage deals have been inked in the U.S. She did not rule out offering “flagship programming” to another widely distributed channel as a means to promote Al-Jazeera Intl., which has already hired British news celeb David Frost and D.C.-based journalist Riz Khan to front two of its shows.The target audience for the international station is not just transplanted Arabs, Oliver says, but young people who have drifted away from traditional news sources.

Head programmer Paul Gibbs, whose background includes a stint at the BBC, says he’s looking to commission some 2,000 news and feature pieces over the next year from various sources — not all of them focused on Iraq: There’ll be a women’s show, a business show and an entertainment mag as well as news and current affairs programs.

At least one deal, with an unspecified Latin American producer, is in place. Others, Gibbs says, are imminent.

How exactly a global brand will be fashioned from such seemingly disparate source material remains fuzzy. But one thing is firm in the execs’ minds: The perspective on world news will be “impartial and unvarnished.”

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