The new chief of Al Jazeera America says the early-stage cable-news network is moving forward after a rocky launch that left the staff demoralized and prompted speculation that the Qatar-backed outlet might abandon its efforts to plant a flag in the United States.
“There is a clear picture of where we are going to go,” said Al Anstey, who was named chief executive of the cable network in May. After supervising the operations of Al Jazeera English, Anstey replaced Ehab Al Shihabi, whose tenure overseeing the network was marked by the departures of some senior executives and a $15 million lawsuit from a former employee alleging that a senior executive was hostile to women and made remarks that could be construed as anti-Semitic.
Anstey has placed an emphasis on content and editorial quality, he said, not ratings.”I think we should not be sitting here and be too optimistic,” he said. “It’s going to take time to build viewership.” The network’s average prime-time viewership had been hovering between 20,000 and 30,000 viewers as recently as the Spring, according to Nielsen data.
Audience will follow as Al Jazeera America gets its content right, Anstey said in an interview at the company’s offices in Manhattan on Friday afternoon. To that end, Al Jazeera America has named Heather Allan, an NBC News veteran who had been working as head of global newsgathering for Al Jazeera English, as its new senior vice president of newsgathering. The network has also hired Jonathan Larsen,an MSNBC producer, as its senior executive producer of politics and Bob Wheelock, a producer with experience at NBC News, ABC News and Al Jazeera English, as its senior executive producer of political newsgathering.
The network is also continuing to tweak its schedule, said Anstey. In primetime, two half-hour programs that had been on during the 10 p.m. hour, “Ali Velshi On Target” and “America Tonight,” now air at 9 p.m. and 9:30 p.m., respectively, while the hour-long “World News” is now on at 10 p.m. Al Jazeera America has also started its morning-news program a half-hour earlier and moved Ray Suarez’ “Inside Story” to 6:30 p.m. to feed viewers into primetime shows. Anstey said. In September, Al Jazeera America renewed a carriage deal with DirecTV
He blamed the network’s recent troubles on a fast pace that has been in place since its Qatar-backed parent acquired the cable network once known as Current for around $500 million in 2013 and launch less than a year afterwards. “I think that things have been moving very fast, and sometimes it’s better to take stock,” Anstey said. He has spent a good portion of this time since his arrival trying to make the company more transparent to employees, he said.
The network’s content strategy remains essentially intact. At a time when many news outlets seem to coalesces around a handful of big stories each day,and hitch on to personality-driven hours in primetime to gain viewers, Al Jazeera America is betting on original reporting and in-depth coverage to carry the day, bolstered by international coverage provided by its parent. In late evenings, “we are doing live national and international news and nobody else is doing it,” said Kate O”Brian, president of the network. “There is a lot of stuff that breaks from around the world. We are always on it.”
Anstey pointed to a series of coming stories based on original reporting, including a look at how oysters might provide signs of climate change, a report on post-traumatic stress syndrome and a dive into past patterns of refugee settlement in the United States. He also vowed to press harder in the current campaign for President, focusing not just on the candidates, but on the people who will ultimately vote for them. Al Jazeera America will air a series of vignettes from citizens under the rubric “First Person” about election issues.
“We could chase ratings. We could do all sorts of stuff in the next week that could give us spikes in viewership,” Anstey said. “We could focus on Donald Trump’s character and nothing else, and that might get us a lot of people coming to our programs, but will it bring people back when they want to know what is going on?”
There has been speculation that advertisers might shy away from the network, owing to its backing from Qatar,but Anstey said that is not the case. Though much of the inventory on Al Jazeera America is bought programmatically, or based on a kind of automation set according to an advertiser’s demographic needs. It is generally used by advertisers as a way to drive down costs. Merck is among the advertisers buying time on Al Jazeera America in this fashion. Some marketers “are interested in our long-term future and the strategy,” Anstey said, and may be up for talks when ratings are more robust.
The network’s parent has a “long term commitment” to keep it operating, said Anstey, who cautioned that counting out Al Jazeera America might be an error. When he was working at Al Jazeera English in its early days, he heard talk that the network would never fare well, he said. These days, Al Jazeera English has footholds in countries around the world.
Al Jazeera America is “a young channel is a very mature market,” he said, but “we are in this for the long haul.”