Al-Jazeera execs face challenges

Tony Burman named English managing director.

LONDON — There may be few more challenging roles in the TV biz than being at the helm of Al-Jazeera English.

Not only do Al-Jazeera English execs have to contend with the minefield of political associations left behind by the feisty Arabic-language newscaster, but they also have repeatedly found their efforts to secure lucrative U.S. carriage largely blocked ever since the net’s 2006 launch.

That hasn’t stopped former Canadian Broadcasting Corp. editor-in-chief Tony Burman from assuming the mantle of Al-Jazeera English managing director.

Burman joined the net in May and was tasked with expanding the newscaster’s programming, bureaus and audience reach.

Since then, Burman has seen Al-Jazeera English make the headlines for the wrong kind of news, particularly in the U.K., following the well-publicized launching of a lawsuit by disgruntled former Al-Jazeera employee Jo Burgin accusing the channel of sexual, race and religious discrimination.

Not that Burman is letting the unseemly spat get in the way of the bigger picture.

“So much of that is about the past,” Burman says. “There’s enough respect for the Al-Jazeera brand that towers over any silliness going on in a British courtroom. They’re talking about a time and a place that is no longer with us.”

It is ironic that Al-Jazeera English finds itself without a major U.S. carriage deal at a time when the American election is the biggest news story in town. That said, execs at the net have still found a way of getting round the obstacle thanks to their dedicated online channel on YouTube.

Nearly 60% of all hits on the site come from inside the U.S., indicating the level of interest the satcaster is still able to generate Stateside despite its lack of conventional penetration.

What’s more, Burman is planning on making the net’s election coverage a key part of its fall campaign as new shows and presenters are unveiled in the coming months.

“The Obama-McCain election may well be a transitional point in modern U.S. history,” Burman says. “American audiences could get a point of view of the world that has been denied them in the past eight years. We’re trying to bring a global, international perspective to the issue, particularly at a time when so many of the U.S. networks are retreating from their coverage of the world.”

The international dimension has always been a key part of Al-Jazeera English’s appeal, which lays claim to 120 million viewers in more than 100 countries. The channel was, after all, originally dubbed Al-Jazeera Intl. before its name was changed shortly after launch. That in itself would point toward an identity crisis that the net has yet to fully resolve.

Is it a genuinely international station on a par with CNN and the BBC or do its roots in the Middle East — the net’s headquarters are in Qatar and it is funded by the Qatari government — mean it is simply an English-language version of its sister Arabic channel?

That question lies at the heart of the moves taking place at the net to see more ethnically diverse faces placed both on-screen and behind the camera.

“When you have over 40 nationalities working for you, it’s important to reflect that diversity on-air and in leadership positions,” says Burman. “The world is becoming more complicated and people are looking for a network that doesn’t necessarily have a home team. The roots of CNN are still in Atlanta and the BBC, for all its professionalism, is still rooted in the British perspective. Our challenge is to make programs which have a real interest in understanding the world from a broad perspective.”