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Al Jazeera America Begins Uphill Struggle for U.S. Toehold

New channel establishes hard-news profile but faces significant challenges

A serious-minded news channel, with a name — Al Jazeera America — that’s almost an invitation to Islamophobia? What, were the names “Please Don’t Watch Us” or “This Will Cause a Painful Rash” taken?

Al Jazeera America made its debut Tuesday, kicking off its uphill slog in about half of cable/satellite homes with a program titled “This is Al Jazeera: Preview Hour,” as glossy and slick as any corporate video. The launch contained all the expected bells and whistles, from snazzy graphics to pre-produced packages, including a look at the awful working conditions in Bangladesh and questions related to decriminalizing pot in Washington state.

Ultimately, though, the new channel is facing major challenges on two tracks: Its stated plan to provide serious news, with a reputation for international coverage, when Americans are not known for being particularly curious about the wider world; and a profile many associate, rightly or wrongly, with being a platform for Osama bin Laden videos in the wake of the Sept. 11 terror attacks.

The new owners are deep pocketed, but they also inherit a plot of media real estate from Current TV that almost nobody was watching. The best thing the channel has going for it, frankly, is media interest in whether it can succeed — certainly eclipsing the public’s stake in the enterprise — and a related bias, perhaps, toward something that dares to shy away from Royal Baby news actually working.

On Tuesday, at least, Al Jazeera America looked as good as its word — despite frequent glitches, offering a credible, straightforward product, anchored by Joie Chen’s “America Tonight” and a news hour fronted by John Siegenthaler.

Simply put, the approach was about as close to PBS tonally as you’re apt to find in the commercial space, with nary a wacky human-interest or feel-good story to be found in either of those central shows. Even the sports segment, presented by Michael Eaves, dealt with steroids in baseball.

Both Chen and Siegenthaler opened their programs by covering events in Egypt, which also dominated the social-media-oriented show preceding that, “The Stream.” (The use of Skype there created a rather cheap, Huffington Post-like “hang” atmosphere, which might be necessary but didn’t really put the channel’s best foot forward.)

America Tonight” kicked off with harrowing footage out of Egypt from reporter Christof Putzel, moving on to near-magazine-length pieces on a Louisiana prison, a cancer treatment and a cholera epidemic in Haiti. There were also other recognizable faces, including former “Nightline” correspondent Chris Bury, lending credibility and authority to its reporting.

The introductory message seemed clear: If you want cute panda videos — or even just Anderson Cooper raising an eyebrow — look elsewhere.

There were, understandably, some technical missteps — one of them interrupting Chen’s opening piece to jump into a canned promotional package, without any subsequent reference to what happened. In addition, the lighter-than-usual commercial load (only six minutes per hour) was offset by a numbing assortment of promotional ads — including testimonials from employees — giving the network an infomercial feel.

Amid a glut of channels and round-the-clock news, there’s room to question the wisdom of trying to crowd into the cable-news mix. Yet with Fox News Channel and MSNBC having migrated to politically polarized corners and CNN seeking to jazz up its product in sometimes-embarrassing ways, there might actually be a niche — and even a need — for something like Al Jazeera America.

Whether there’s enough demand, alas, might be a different matter entirely.

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