Al Jazeera America Chief Sees Challenges Ahead

Early consumer research revealed negative impressions among those who have not seen Al Jazeera content previously

How do you get people to  talk about and ultimately pay for your content when they aren’t able to see it for themselves? Solving that conundrum may be a top priority for executives at Al Jazeera America.

Backed by the Qatar government, Al Jazeera’s U.S. operation is set to launch on air August 20, but it will do so without carriage on several  large distributors like Cablevision and Time Warner Cable. And it will do so armed with research showing converting would-be customers who have a negative perception of the network requires having them watch it for a while.

Surveys conducted by the company early in its launch process – in January – showed that of people who do not watch Al Jazeera programming, in the U.S., 75% have a negative impression of the operation, said Ehab Al Shihabi, interim chief executive of the company;’s U.S. operations. Among those who have watched, 90% have a favorable impression, he said. The study was conducted in January after Al Jazeera purchased the Current cable network for what is said to be around $500 million. Since that time, he said, perception “has become more on the positive side.”

Any TV newshound may be familiar with Al Jazeera’s story. The network promises in-depth coverage, investigations and hard news, rather than the shouting-head pundit panels that have become a staple of cable-news operations. And thanks to its parent company, it has feet on the ground in many parts of the world, so that it can give American audiences reportage on events in Egypt, for example, that are of extreme interest,

But  the network will need to reach people in order to convince them of its value and utility. The network is poised to launch in just 48 million homes, Compare that with 21st Century Fox’s Fox Sports 1, which has worked furiously to secure carriage on Time Warner Cable and others, and reach the majority of pay-TV homes when it debuts this weekend.

“I am sure it’s just a matter of a short time,” said Al Shihabi. “We are already talking with most of our distributors” regarding carriage.

Al Jazeera has also spent time making its case to advertisers, reaching out to ad-buying concerns to dispel any notions that the network may be biased or have an anti-American lens.  “The bad perception has been converted into a positive perception,” Al Shihabi said. ” I think we are not concerned any more.”

The network intends to run just six minutes of advertising per hour, he said, far less than what the network estimates is between 15 minutes and 17 minutes of advertising per hour. Al Jazeera America will debut with an advertiser as “launch partner,” Al Shihabi said, though he declined to provide the sponsor’s name., He also declined to name specific categories of advertising that would appear on air, but said the network had backing from a range of marketers.

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