English offshoot of Arab net struggles for U.S. deal

There may be few more challenging roles in the TV biz than being at the helm of Al-Jazeera English.

Not only does one have to contend with the minefield of political associations left behind by the feisty Arabic-language newscaster, but Al-Jazeera English execs have repeatedly found their efforts to secure lucrative U.S. carriage blocked ever since the net’s 2006 launch.

That hasn’t stopped former Canadian Broadcasting Corp. editor-in-chief Tony Burman from assuming the mantle of Al-Jazeera English managing director.

Burman joined the net in May, tasked with expanding the newscaster’s programming, bureaus and audience reach.

Since then, Burman has seen Al-Jazeera English make headlines for the wrong kind of news, particularly in the U.K. following a lawsuit from former Al-Jazeera employee Jo Burgin accusing the channel of sexual, racial and religious discrimination.

Not that Burman is letting the spat get in the way of the bigger picture.

“So much of that is about the past,” says Burman. “There’s enough respect for the Al-Jazeera brand that towers over any silliness going on in a British courtroom. They’re talking about a time and a place that is no longer with us.”

It is ironic that Al-Jazeera English finds itself without a major U.S. carriage deal at a time when the American election is the biggest news story around (besides the economic crisis). That said, execs at the net have found a way of getting around the obstacle thanks to their dedicated online channel on YouTube.

With 60% of all hits coming from inside the U.S., there’s clearly interest that the satcaster is still able to generate Stateside despite a lack of conventional penetration.

What’s more, Burman is planning on making the net’s election coverage a key part of its fall campaign.

“The Obama-McCain election may well be a transitional point in modern U.S. history,” says Burman. “American audiences could get a point of view of the world that has been denied them in the past eight years. We’re trying to bring a global, international perspective to the issue, particularly at a time when so many of the U.S. networks are retreating from their coverage of the world.”

Identity crisis

The international dimension has always been a key part of Al-Jazeera English’s appeal, which currently lays claim to 120 million viewers in more than 100 countries. The channel was, after all, originally dubbed Al-Jazeera International. That in itself would point toward an identity crisis that the net has yet to fully resolve.

Is it a genuinely international station on par with CNN and the BBC, or do its roots in the Middle East — the net’s headquarters are in Qatar — mean it is simply an English version of the Arabic channel?

That question lies at the heart of the moves currently taking place at the net to see more ethnically diverse faces placed both onscreen and behind the camera.

“When you have over 40 nationalities working for you, it’s important to reflect that diversity on air and in leadership positions,” says Burman. “The world is becoming more complicated, and people are looking for a network that doesn’t necessarily have a home team. … Our challenge is to make programs that have a real interest in understanding the world from a broad perspective.”

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