Satcaster experiences a challenging first year

When Al-Jazeera Intl. finally launched in November of last year following a series of delays, expectations were high for the English-language newscaster.

With $1 billion reportedly spent on building four interconnected global news centers in London, Washington, Kuala Lumpur and Doha, in addition to some 30 international news bureaus and a splashy lineup of reporters including David Frost, Riz Khan and Dave Marash, the startup certainly didn’t lack for ambition.

With the channel now approaching its first anniversary, the scorecard for its first year on air remains a mixed bag.

Internal politics within the Al-Jazeera Network — which includes the Arab-language newscaster, sports channel, children’s channel and documentary channel — saw the new satcaster change its name within weeks of its launch to Al-Jazeera English, so as not to overshadow any of the other channels.

The lack of a major cable or satellite distribution deal in the U.S., aside from a pact with Burlington Telecom, has also remained a source of frustration for Al-Jazeera execs. That said, the satcaster inked an agreement with YouTube earlier this year to post some of its programs online. The results have been positive so far, with 50,000-100,000 downloads a day — many coming from U.S. auds.

“I would say it’s been an extremely solid year. It’s been one of the most competent launches I’ve ever seen,” says Al-Jazeera English topper Nigel Parsons. “Clearly we would have liked better cable penetration in the States, but we never expected to get coast-to-coast penetration. In fact, the media feedback we’ve received from America has been very positive.”

Second chances

In fact, Parsons and his newly appointed distribution director Phil Lawrie will be journeying to the U.S. in another attempt to seal a cable deal for the net.

“In the past year, we’ve been able to establish ourselves as a serious, credible channel offering an alternative view of the world,” Parson says. “We’ve already held some negotiations with distributors in America, so we’re going to make another push in that territory.”

The channel also is set to push its onscreen content in its sophomore year. New programming director Scott Ferguson heads up the rollout of new shows with a bigger focus on investigative journalism, business journalism and health and environmental issues.

“We’re ready to be a bit bolder and take a few more risks,” Parsons says. “We’ve been paranoid about making any kind of mistake at all. We’re now looking at ways to appeal to the younger generation, and there are various areas we can explore.”

While the recruitment of big names prelaunch helped the satcaster generate some buzz and brand recognition, it is the homegrown stable of presenters that Parsons is most of proud of as Al-Jazeera English completes its rookie year, mentioning entertainment editor and presenter Amanda Palmer (“The Fabulous Picture Show”) and Africa correspondent Haru Mutasa as particular successes.

Ironically, the biggest challenge lying ahead for the channel may not be the ongoing rumbles behind-the-scenes at Al-Jazeera Networks, where internal power moves saw director-general Wadah Khanfar lose his seat on the board in July, but in how the satcaster will handle the likely outbreak of a major regional crisis.

The station launched too late to cover last summer’s 34-day war between Israel and Lebanon, which remains a regret for Parsons. “What’s eluded us so far has been a long-running breaking news story like last summer’s war,” Parsons says. “That’s been particularly frustrating.”

With Western powers turning up the rhetoric on Iran, Israel supposedly launching a military strike against Syria and the ongoing political assassinations in Lebanon, Al-Jazeera journos may not have to wait too much longer before they get their big story.

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