Al Jazeera Won’t Stoop to Score With U.S. Channel

Al Jazeera America

Arab newsie vows profits will come second to substantive news, in-depth reporting

Prominently displayed in the bazaar of cable TV companies that took over the bottom floor of the Walter E. Washington Convention Center in Washington, D.C., last week was a logo that still turns heads in the U.S.

Al Jazeera America’s white-carpeted booth at the National Cable and Telecommunications Assn.’s annual confab was situated in the main drag of the convention floor, a neighbor of Disney and Turner, and kitty-corner from the Fox Networks Group installation.

Unlike most of the confab’s larger exhibs, Al Jazeera America came to NCTA with real distribution work to do, courting cable operators to carry the all-news channel that parent org Al Jazeera Media Network intends to launch by late August. Leading the effort for the Qatar-based, state-funded newsie is Ehab Al Shihabi, the parent company’s exec director of international operations. Al Jazeera America is assured of launching in at least 50 million U.S. homes, thanks to its acquisition of Current TV in January.

Al Shihabi comes to the job with an MBA from Georgetown U. and a background in global business consulting prior to joining Al Jazeera four years ago. He sounds like a polished media exec as he discusses the market research studies that convinced Al Jazeera there is demand in the U.S. marketplace for a channel devoted to hard news, and in-depth and investigative reporting. “Intelligent” and “unbiased” were among the buzzwords featured in the promo vids that unspooled on a giant screen in the booth.

Al Jazeera America is emphasizing its focus on news of substance to everyday Americans, rather than celebrity fare or partisan bickering, with a concerted effort to illuminate the global impact of news, cultural shifts and social changes. To buttress the argument that Americans hunger for serious reportage, Al Jazeera’s vid features a testimonial from “Miguel, a barista in Miami,” as well as a stay-at-home mom, a Gen-Y blogger and a small-business owner.

“We are looking for the human side of the news,” Al Shihabi said. “There is huge demand for the voice of the mainstream.”

Al Jazeera is pouring major resources into the America launch, starting with the $500 million it paid (or overpaid) for Current. Staffers are now in the midst of a spree to hire 800 journalists by launch time (21,000-plus applications have flooded in) to man 12 domestic bureaus, with plans for more down the road. At the net’s studio headquarters in Gotham’s New Yorker Hotel, talent and production teams are running through practice drills of six-hour live daytime news blocks. Investigative and longform segments are starting to be banked and docus acquired to fill other dayparts.

Al Jazeera sees the U.S. launch as the final cornerstone to be laid in building its international news network. The org has gained credibility, even prestige, in the U.K., Europe and the Middle East. But the perception of some in the U.S. of it being somehow associated with terrorism, forged in the high-tension moments following the Sept. 11 attacks, will remain a speedbump in its expansion bid.

Al Shihabi downplays the significance of the image problem as a hurdle to expanding its carriage deals. The bigger issue, which no one can dispute, is the difficulty of launching any new linear channel these days at a time when cable operators are already maxed out on capacity and looking to drop underperforming outlets.

Despite its government funding, Al Jazeera is not a nonprofit business. Al Shihabi likened its funding model to that of the BBC or PBS. Al Jazeera America will be on a “path to positive cash flow” in time, he assured, but for now it’s a crucial investment for the parent org. The U.S. channel will have ad support, but only half of the typical commercial load per hour as its rivals. No, that’s not because they’re having trouble lining up advertisers, Al Shihabi said, but because “we strongly believe the audience is more attached if you have a longer hour.”

As much as media bizzers (like me) are fascinated to see how Al Jazeera America will be received by the mainstream Americans it aims to serve, Al Shihabi notes that he’s keeping a careful eye on making sure the U.S. product doesn’t diminish the image Al Jazeera has cultivated with its 27-plus other channels airing in 130 countries.

“We are not changing our journalistic identity for the U.S. channel,” Al Shihabi said. “We’re not like other organizations that are about maximizing profits. Al Jazeera America will reflect the values and the mission of Al Jazeera.”

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  1. Hi Cynthia!

    It is indeed strange that Executive Director of Int’l Operations, Ehab Al Shihabi, went out of his way to kill US 2012 distribution deals from at least two major US satellite and cable operators in 2012 (for news, documentary, children’s channel and sports) that would have had Al Jazeera Media Network (AJMN) paying $0.00 for deals instead to push for what some might consider an ego charged over the odds price ($500 million) for a cable channel like Current TV.

    beIN Sports USA was part of that package and another example of the lack of experience that AJMN has in dealing with the US market. Their nearly two year push into the US market for beIN Sports has captured a small cable audience of about 14,000 homes in Coral Cables Florida despite paying hundreds of millions for North American sports rights.

    Ehab Al Shihabi may sound like a polished executive although I have never heard that spoken about him. He has indeed had zero past television or entertainment experience before joining AJMN. Mr. Al Shihabi may not understand the intricacies and nuances of the US TV landscape or indeed the international TV one as well. In fact, he may also have very little support within the organisation apart from the Director General, Sheikh Ahmed bin Jassim al Thani.

    It is true that Al Jazeera has an incredibly large number of talented journalists, creative’s and executives working for the company. The only problem is that there is a Muslim agenda that gets pushed under the carpet when they come to marketing themselves globally but is completely overt in many company discussions and meetings. So one could argue, debate and consider whether there is a bias within the inner roots of their global network.

    It was indeed the fact that Ehab Al Shihabi’s ancestors who were prominent clerics in a Mosque in Jerusalem that gave him so much influence over and with Director General’s Al Thani view and prominence within the organisation.

    AJMN journalists and executives are afraid of Al Shihabi. They hide any truth that needs open discussion and dialogue. It is the Director General and his management that does not allow this dialogue from taking place. At a news organisation that prides itself on transparency there is some conflict to how their inner workings are managed. AJMN certainly does not illustrate freedom and openness within the organisation from the get go so it is strange that this is their international mantra – “the voice of the voiceless”. However, they forget to mention their own Qatar, AJMN agenda that sometimes gets positioned silently throughout their programming.

    So one wonders how that style of management and television network could play out in a larger part within the US market.

    No doubt the majority of their news is very newsworthy and honorable but there needs to be FCC approval on any foreign ownership of any US channel and any channel (news, documentary or sports) so AJMN is no different.

  2. Rupert says:

    This is great news – I hope they are successful and that I’ll see AJ on Uverse. They are an excellent news organization, especially international.

  3. Lindsay says:

    This is so disturbing….especially the line “Al Jazeera sees the U.S. launch as the final cornerstone to be laid in building its international news network”. They’ve had such a positive impact on the world why not make the US the final conquest.

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