Al Jazeera America is setting up a slate of ambitious documentaries in an effort to raise its profile among news aficionados while stoking demand for the fledgling cable-news outlet.
Many of the projects will contain multiple episodes and come from big names on the documentary scene, including Alex Gibney and Joe Berlinger. The network has run documentaries in recent months, but the new ones, “Borderland,” represent the first Al Jazeera America has directly commissioned, explained Shannon High, the network’s senior veep of documentaries and programs, and there are hopes the quality and scope of the series will spark more interest in the Qatar-backed news cabler.
“Borderland,” is a four-part series that will show six Americans given the task of retracing the footsteps of three deceased migrants attempting to cross to the United States from Mexico. In the process, the network will draw attention to the plight of 5,500 individuals who have perished in the desert over the last 15 years while trying to make a similar journey.
“We are looking at an immersive experience,” said High. “No matter where you stand on immigration, where you are coming from the left or right or down the middle, you will come out of watching these four hours really having a comprehensive perspective on what immigration is really all about – from all viewpoints.” “Borderland” will debut Sunday, April 6 at 9 p.m. Eastern, and the network is likely to broadcast a “reunion” show of sorts, High said, that will allow the people who took part to relay their feelings on the experience.
“Borderland” was produced by Australian independent production company “In Films” in association with Los Angeles-based Muck Media for Al Jazeera America.
Finding ways to stand out is paramount for Al Jazeera America, which has ambitious plans and more than adequate funding, but needs to bolster the number of homes it reaches. In December, the network began airing on Time Warner Cable and Bright House Networks, a move that brings it into nearly 55 million homes. Al Jazeera launched August 20.
“When you are a new channel among hundreds in the cable world, you want to be gaining traction. You want people to come and sample you,” said High. “Yes, we hope this will basically spark conversation and draw attention.”
A cable-news rival has also been investing in docu-\series and documentaries. At Time Warner’s CNN, new documentaries about everything from Jay Leno to a captive killer whale at Sea World to the 1960s have drawn attention – and in fact have largely been filling some of the network’s 10 p.m. slots.
Al Jazeera America has two other series on tap. “The System with Joe Berlinger,” produced for Al Jazeera America by Radical Media, will explore controversial cases of alleged injustices in the U.S. judicial system, while presenting the points of view of victims, criminals and members of law-enforcement. Berlinger is known for such fare as “Some Kind of Monster,” about Metallica, or “Paradise Lost,” about the West Memphis 3. The first three episodes in the series will air March 16, 23 and 30.
“Edge of Eighteen,” executive produced for Al Jazeera America by Alex Gibney and Jigsaw Productions, explores the lives of 18 high school students across the country, as reported and recorded by those very students.