Playing lead Qatar for Anglo Al-Jazeera

Featured Player: Nigel Parsons

LONDON Launching an international TV station from scratch is always challenging.

When the station is Al-Jazeera Intl. with all the baggage that comes from being sister channel to the Arab satcaster that is world’s fifth best-known brand, challenges come by the dozen.

“Where do you want me to start?” quips Blighty’s Nigel Parsons, AJI’s m.d from his office in Doha, Qatar. “It’s hard enough keeping guys on time when you’re installing a new kitchen, let alone holding them to deadlines across different time zones.”

Appointed in August 2004 as managing director of Al-Jazeera’s English-language news channel, the 54-year-old father of four has set up broadcast centers in Doha; London; Washington, D.C; and Kuala Lumpur. But the 24-hour satcaster is yet to go live.

It was originally due to air in late 2005. That was pushed back to the end of May and now looks unlikely to unspool until late summer following yet more technical complications, according to Wadah Khanfar, Al-Jazeera’s m.d. who was appointed director-general of the Al-Jazeera Network on March 29.

“We’re at the mercy of the buildings,” Parsons adds.

Parson’s background serves him well in his new job. The son of a military officer, he spent much of his childhood traveling the world, including Singapore, Malaysia, Australia, New Zealand, Colombia and Hong Kong.

He began his 30-year journalism career on the Cambridge Evening News. Since then, he has had stints with BBC World Service radio, ABC Radio America and CBC Radio Canada. Before AJI, he was director of Associated Press Television News.

His globe-trotting life has given him what AJI execs call a 360-degree outlook.

“We are more of a world channel than an Arabic-language channel. We’re not just focused on Arabic speakers, so we’ll probably have more coverage out of South Asia, Latin America and others places,” says Parsons.

Few satcasters have generated as much media ink as Al-Jazeera, with equal praise and condemnation. While Parsons is keen to create a strong, independent identity for the English-language news channel, he acknowledges it will be impossible to separate the two. Not that he wants to.

“We’ll have a different language, but we fully intend to build on Al-Jazeera’s heritage. We’re not trying to tell you we’re a completely different animal,” he says.

The controversy surrounding the Arabic channel has not hindered his quest to recruit high-profile presenters. To date, AJI has signed up David Frost, Riz Khan, Dave Marash and former marine Josh Rushing, among others.

“The reputation is misconceived. I’ve been to the States, and people have opinions about Al-Jazeera even though they’ve never seen the channel. Perhaps when they see a channel of that nature in English they can understand it and appreciate it,” says Parsons.

“One of the few countries Al-Jazeera has never been expelled from is Israel. That’s because it always allowed Israelis to put their side of the argument. The first time many Arabs ever saw an Israeli was on Al-Jazeera.”

Parsons also is keen to ensure local reporters cover local stories. That’s why the AJI Web site offers a forum for any producer, anywhere in the world, to submit pitches. “So many people have told me on my travels they’re tired of seeing themselves through foreign eyes. Our aim is to outsource as much as possible,” Parsons comments.

Ironically, one of Parsons’ biggest challenges has been to keep Al-Jazeera’s original Arab staffers onboard with the new enterprise, of which some are suspicious.

“One of the reasons for those comments is that we’ve only recently come up to anything bearing a full complement here in Doha and started working on pilots and programs,” Parsons says. “At management level, we’ve built up a very good relationship, so it’s our job to make sure that filters down.”

Meanwhile, Khanfar’s elevation may also allay suspicions.

He will helm all Al-Jazeera channels — including the original Arab-language channel, sports channel, docu channel and kids channel as well as AJI.

The move has been seen by some as consolidating Khanfar’s position, and that of the Arab-language satcaster, ahead of AJI’s launch.