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Al Jazeera America Chief: We Will Have ‘Less Yelling,’ ‘Fewer Celebs’

Al Jazeera America will strive to distinguish itself from the opinionated newstalk of competitor nets

Al Jazeera America’s interim CEO and prez made one thing clear during a conference call Wednesday: the forthcoming network will be about hard news, not the salacious “infotainment” made popular on competitor cable news nets.

The channel, set to launch on August 20, is promising a more restrained approach to its presentation, in contrast with the opinion-punctuated hosts – and frequent emphasis on celebrity – found on the other cable news nets.

“This will be about unbiased, in-depth news,” said Al Jazeera America CEO Ehab Al Shihabi. “It’s less opinion, less yelling, and fewer celebrities…[There is a demographic] that needs information, not infotainment, and they’re underserved.”

He continued: “The media landscape focuses on the 10%, including the politicians and celebs…And then, they ask the 90% what they think. We’re changing that model and focusing on the 90%…We ask the 10% what they think about what the 90% is saying.”

Shihabi’s comments follow CNN’s announcement that it plans to revive “Crossfire,” which historically has been known as a shout-fest between hosts and guests. Elsewhere on the cable news spectrum, MSNBC and Fox News continue to draw criticism for leaning too far left or right, respectively.

“We’re coming [into the marketplace] to win based on our core identity,” Shihabi explained to journos on a conference call. “We will do the impact, and make the audience chase us. We don’t need to shift our core to chase the audience” and try to convert viewers from other nets, he noted.

Shihabi and prez Kate O’Brian understand that Al Jazeera America faces several hurdles as it rolls out in American households, from P.R. issues deriving from its Middle Eastern name, to penetration issues as the net still engages in talks with carriers who do not have Al Jazeera America on their lineups.

“We did national testing on the network name,” said Shihabi. “75% of the people who didn’t watch Al Jazeera” had a negative impression of the net, whereas “90% of those who did watch” had a positive impression. Shihabi stated that these results were encouraging, while O’Brian emphasized that Al Jazeera America will be fulfilling the American viewer’s need for unbiased news in the marketplace.

“Launching this particular channel, which has a very particular mission, is frankly less challenging than people might think,” O’Brian noted.

Advertisers have also warmed up to Al Jazeera America, according to Shihabi.

“They had a perception [of the channel] but not a reality,” the CEO said. “Then, they saw us, the quality, our president, and this all translated the bad perception being converted into a good perception. We’re not concerned anymore.”

O’Brian and Shihabi hope to draw in younger demos to Al Jazeera America with social media-savvy shows including “The Stream,” which integrates Twitter, Facebook, Skype and other platforms into the broadcast.

“According to research, the 24 to 30-year-old crowd, they’re global thinkers,” remarked Shihabi. “They’re tech-savvy and interested in international news…Al Jazeera is appealing to that demographic, which we saw with Al Jazeera English.”

With the debut just days away, Al Jazeera America has been busy piloting programs, even breaking in with live news from events in Egypt to test the channel’s capabilities and work out last minute kinks.

“We are absolutely ready for next week’s launch,” Shihabi said with confidence. “We’re not just ready, we’re more than ready.”

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