Al Jazeera Finally Appears Ready for U.S. Launch

ABC News veteran Kate O'Brian named president, while network architect Ehab Al Shihab is interim CEO

Al Jazeera

Al Jazeera took what appeared to be its final steps to building a U.S. cable-news outlet Monday by instilling ABC News veteran Kate O’Brian as its president while naming the executive who has been building the nascent network, Ehab Al Shihabi, as its interim chief executive. The media outlet even unveiled its senior-executive structure and set a launch date of August 20.

Now all it has to do is launch the thing.

In recent months, Al Jazeera has drawn notice for buying Al Gore’s Current cable outlet and attempting to transform it into a viable competitor to the nation’s usual coterie of news outlets: not just Fox News Channel, MSNBC and CNN but NBC News, ABC News and CBS News, too. The company intends to do that by relying on a more serious news report, not the lighter side of Twitter that can often form the backbone of the relentless cable-news cycle.

Another strength will likely be found in foreign coverage, a topic that may be harder to match these days in the U.S. (and a potential concern for an outlet like CNN, which in has at times downplayed recent coverage of the Egypt crisis on its U.S. flagship). What’s more, Al Jazeera America has steadily built a top-flight U.S. roster and placed a focus on in-depth journalism, not always a mainstay element of soon-to-be rivals’ reports. Already, Al Jazeera has brought on board TV-news veterans like Soledad O’Brien, Ali Velshi and Sheila MacVicar.

What the company has not done – until today – is detailed its senior executive structure, a maneuver that has had some TV-news insiders wonder how a chief executive of a new cable network would function being assigned to lead a team he or she had little say in constructing.

Naming Al Shihabi to the interim CEO role could eliminate some of that concern, at least for the moment. Al Shihabi has more or less been in charge of developing Al Jazeera America, which will be headquartered in New York City and have 12 bureaus in key cities around the U.S. In his five years with Al Jazeera, he has supervised the network’s more than 70 bureaus around the globe – the largest footprint of any news gathering organization in the world. In addition to Al Jazeera America, he has participated in the creation and launch of Al Jazeera’s Balkans and Al Jazeera’s Turkish channels. Before joining Al Jazeera, Al Shihabi spent 12 years as a senior management consultant at Arthur Andersen, Andersen Consulting and Deloitte. He holds an M.A. in Leadership from Georgetown University.

O’Brian has since 2007 been responsible for all of ABC News’ newsgathering operations, including ABC News bureaus worldwide, business, law and justice, medical, and investigative units, NewsOne, ABC News Radio and affiliate relations. “Kate has the vision, tenacity and integrity to ensure that Al Jazeera America will quickly become the success we expect it to be,” said Dr. Mostefa Souag, acting Director General of Al Jazeera Media Network, in a prepared statement.

O’Brian began her career as a television desk assistant in New York and then joined the staff of “This Week with David Brinkley” when it launched in 1981. She has also been general manager of programming for ABC News Radio responsible for editorial content; overseas field producer in Rome and London; producer for “World News Tonight with Peter Jennings,” both in Washington D.C. and New York; and manager in talent development

The resumes of the network’s senior staff are also impressive. David Doss, now a senior vice president of news programming, has credentials including senior exec producer of CNN’s “Anderson Cooper 360” as well as a long tenure at ABC News and NBC News. Marcy McGinnis, a veteran CBS News executive who was involved in the network’s coverage of the 9/11 tragedy, had most recently been teaching, will take on the role of senior vice president of newsgathering. And Shannon High-Bassalik, will be senior vice-president, documentaries and programs. Most recently at CNN, she has held senior roles at NBC News and MSNBC.

Despite the impressive line-up both in front of and behind the camera, Al Jazeera’s success is not a foregone conclusion. The network must attain more clearance on U.S. cable and satellite carriers; it will launch in more than 50 million homes. There is a lingering perception in the U.S. –right or wrong – that the network is somehow associated with terrorism, which could slow its progress in gaining carriage.

And then, of course, Al Jazeera must contend- like anyone else in the boob-tube business these days – with trying to snare viewer attention.

Thanks to an endless array of new gadgets and technological developments, TV viewers can get their news in any number of ways that do not involve old-style day-and-date TV viewing. No matter the scale of its financial backing and news staff, Al Jazeera must grapple with forces that have destabilized the entire media business, not to mention a set of competitors who have been wrangling with those issues for a much longer period of time.