With Current TV purchase, Arab news net eyes U.S. legitimacy

Al Jazeera Timeline

Having won awards for its coverage of the Arab Spring with a news operation that reports on events in far-flung countries with the hustle that has become its trademark, Al Jazeera has come a long way since it started airing 16 years ago out of Doha with a loan from the Emir of Qatar eager to put his country on the global media stage.

Now, after the network plunked down $500 million to buy Al Gore’s cabler, Current TV, since renamed Al Jazeera America — as well as pricey sports rights buys for sister network BeIN — perhaps Al Jazeera will begin to be known as much for muscle as hustle.

The deal marks a watershed for the Qatar-based network, giving it access to 41 million U.S. households (it had a mere 4.7 million before the deal). Internationally, it reaches more than 260 million homes in 130 countries. Al Jazeera claims to have at least 80 million viewers globally, with about half of them in the Arab world, according to analytics by Allied Media Corp., which acts as its U.S. advertising agent.

At the heart of the company’s expansion is Al Jazeera English, launched in 2006 as a competitor, and counterweight, to CNN International and BBC World, with production hubs in Qatar, London, Washington, D.C., and Kuala Lumpur. The English offshoot now boasts an estimated reach of around 100 million households.

“Al Jazeera English has a totally different audience (than Al Jazeera’s Arabic operation),” says Arab Media scholar William Youmans, of George Washington University. “Its news is more international, more about South America, Africa and East Asia, whereas the Arabic channel has more of a regional content in terms of focus. Both take pride in shaking things up politically; but I don’t see a lot of commonality beside that.”

Now headed by Al Anstey, former foreign news topper at the U.K.’s ITN, Al Jazeera English churns out the news in a 24-hour cycle that shifts to provide relevant news to primetime viewers in different regions. At a time when American networks have cut their foreign news bureaus to the bone, Al Jazeera has bureaus in 65 countries.

In the U.S., Al Jazeera English will feature “more U.S. news than foreign,” according to Al Jazeera U.S. spokesman Stan Collender, who characterized the new entity as “a completely new all-news channel.” Some 60% of the news content will be produced in the U.S., and the remaining 40% will come from Al Jazeera English.

Al Jazeera has advertised more than 100 job openings in New York and Washington, including 54 producers, 20 editors, investigative journalists, and a New York-based anchor.

These vacancies give a glimpse of their U.S. plans. The beats include news, sports, economics, science and technology, and producer and executive producer posts for news, sports, and business.

Al Jazeera has already secured a less controversial presence in the U.S. via beIN Sport BeIN Sport, a subsidiary of the network owned by Al Jazeera Sports Media Network. BeIn has three channels in France, has launched two channels in the U.S. and last year plunked down $450 million last year for broadcast rights to top soccer leagues in France, Spain, Italy and the U.K.. Tellingly, it recently snapped up U.S. rights to matches played by the United States national team as it seeks to qualify for the 2014 World Cup. Qatar will host the World Cup in 2022.

BeIN is carried in the U.S. on Time Warner Cable, DirecTV, Dish, Bright House Cable and Comcast.

While it seems that the network plans to pump money into an all-news U.S. channel, .it’s certain that the company is working to burnish its image in the U.S., where it had been running into carriage issues before buying Current.

The stigma against Al Jazeera in America is due largely to the Bush administration’s contention that it had links to Al Qaeda, since the network aired videos provided by Osama bin Laden after the 9/11 terror attacks. The network responded at the time that it had been given the tapes because it has a large Arab audience, and said it was operating in a manner consistent with the New York Times when it printed messages from the Unabomber.

“A considerable segment of Americans is predisposed against the channel,” Youmans says, even though, he adds, most have never actually watched it.

While there are no available TV viewership numbers for Al Jazeera in the U.S., a telling figure is that 40% of all Al Jazeera English Web traffic comes from the U.S.

Don’t count outgoing Secretary of State Hillary Clinton among the detractors. In March 2011, Clinton praised Al Jazeera’s coverage of events that revolved around the Arab Spring, saying it provided “real news,” unlike “the kind of stuff that we do on our news.” That coverage won Al Jazeera English a Peabody Award a little more than a year later.

Given its roster of established news pros, any kudos shouldn’t come as a surprise.

At the outset, Al Jazeera English hired several journos from ABC’s Nightline, including Dave Marash, who became the network’s Washington anchor and the de-facto American face of the channel, before resigning in 2008 due to what he cited was an increased amount of editorial control exercised by the channel’s Doha headquarters. David Frost became a familiar face on Al Jazzera in the U.K.Amanda Palmer, who went on to head the Doha Tribeca Film Festival from 2009 to 2012, is among former Al Jazeera English entertainment journos. Palmer made showbiz one of the newscast’s popular staples.

That said, Al Jazeera America’s road to acceptance won’t be an easy one. In the U.K., where Al Jazeera English was named News Channel of the Year in 2011 at the U.K.’s Royal Television Awards, beating out BBC News and Sky News, audiences remain so small that its ratings are not measured by official U.K. ratings body, Barb.

The reality is that many still wonder about the extent of Al Jazeera’s independence from the government of Qatar, from which it derives a portion of its funding. With the ink on the Current TV deal barely dry, the Financial Times brought up the point in an editorial headlined, Al Jazeera Coverage Raises Tough Questions.

But Qatar isn’t the only government said to have demonstrated undue influence on the network. In September 2011, Wadah Khanfar, topper of Al Jazeera’s Arabic operation, stepped down following Wikileaks disclosures that indicated an instance in which he had softened coverage of the Iraq war in response to pressure from U.S. officials. Khanfar was replaced by Sheikh Ahmad bin Jasem Al-Thani, a member of Qatar’s ruling clan, with no journalism experience.

More recently, the network’s editorial independence was called into question after U.K. newspaper the Guardian reported that Al Jazeera English news director Salah Negm ordered video footage of a U.N. debate on Syria to be re-edited to lead with comments from Qatar emir Sheikh Ahmad bin Khalifa al-Thani instead of a speech by President Obama.

Collender maintains that Al Jazeera America will be independent. “Al Jazeera America’s editorial policy will not be determined by anyone other than the professional journalists who are creating it and will be presenting it,” he says.

Though Al Jazeera does not reveal its finances, over the years, the Al Thani royal family, whose sovereign wealth fund reportedly has up to $100 billion in assets, has shelled out hundreds of millions in startup costs for the network. Spending at Al Jazeera in 2010 reached almost $650 million, with most going for the Arabic side of the operation; just $29 million was targeted for Al Jazeera English, according to market research company Ipsos. The recent Current TV deal changes the geographic balance of those economics.

Notably, one of the territories that has not been averse to slotting Al Jazeera is Israel, where the nation’s second-largest cable carrier, HOT, replaced CNN with Al Jazeera English, reportedly purely due to cost considerations. Al Jazeera English also airs via the YES satellite network in Israel.

While the network’s coverage of Israel is a pet peeve among its detractors, and there is no doubt it gives Palestinian voices better play than on most outlets, Al Jazeera was nonetheless the first Arab broadcaster to have Israelis as on-air guests, sometimes on its flagship talkshow “The Opposite Direction,” launched when the network was just getting started, in 1996, with a loan from the Emir of Qatar, who was eager to put his country on the global media stage.

Assessing how far the network has come from those days, when it was a six-hour-a-day newsie with a small staff of mostly BBC-trained Arab journos, Philip Seib, a USC professor who authored a study on Al Jazeera and its effect on world politics, could only marvel.

“There is a sense of pride among Qataris and among Arabs generally that there is now an Arab TV channel that is truly going global,” Seib says. “This would have been inconceivable 20 years ago.”

Collender says Al Jazeera America has no preconceptions that success in the U.S. will come overnight.

“Like any start-up business, we will need financial support at the beginning,” he says, adding that the plan is to work quickly toward a self-sustaining business model.

Still, with the Emir’s deep pockets behind it, Al Jazeera America looks to have some leeway as it turns the focus of its hustle to getting Americans to befriend it.

Steve Clarke in London contributed to this report.

The takeaway:

Al Jazeera’s ambitions have grown, with a sister sports channel and expansion into the U.S, where it faces its biggest challenges yet.

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