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Al Jazeera Won’t Stoop to Score With U.S. Channel

Arab newsie vows profits will come second to substantive news, in-depth reporting

Prominently displayed in the bazaar of cable TV companies that took over the bottom floor of the Walter E. Washington Convention Center in Washington, D.C., last week was a logo that still turns heads in the U.S.

Al Jazeera America’s white-carpeted booth at the National Cable and Telecommunications Assn.’s annual confab was situated in the main drag of the convention floor, a neighbor of Disney and Turner, and kitty-corner from the Fox Networks Group installation.

Unlike most of the confab’s larger exhibs, Al Jazeera America came to NCTA with real distribution work to do, courting cable operators to carry the all-news channel that parent org Al Jazeera Media Network intends to launch by late August. Leading the effort for the Qatar-based, state-funded newsie is Ehab Al Shihabi, the parent company’s exec director of international operations. Al Jazeera America is assured of launching in at least 50 million U.S. homes, thanks to its acquisition of Current TV in January.

Al Shihabi comes to the job with an MBA from Georgetown U. and a background in global business consulting prior to joining Al Jazeera four years ago. He sounds like a polished media exec as he discusses the market research studies that convinced Al Jazeera there is demand in the U.S. marketplace for a channel devoted to hard news, and in-depth and investigative reporting. “Intelligent” and “unbiased” were among the buzzwords featured in the promo vids that unspooled on a giant screen in the booth.

Al Jazeera America is emphasizing its focus on news of substance to everyday Americans, rather than celebrity fare or partisan bickering, with a concerted effort to illuminate the global impact of news, cultural shifts and social changes. To buttress the argument that Americans hunger for serious reportage, Al Jazeera’s vid features a testimonial from “Miguel, a barista in Miami,” as well as a stay-at-home mom, a Gen-Y blogger and a small-business owner.

“We are looking for the human side of the news,” Al Shihabi said. “There is huge demand for the voice of the mainstream.”

Al Jazeera is pouring major resources into the America launch, starting with the $500 million it paid (or overpaid) for Current. Staffers are now in the midst of a spree to hire 800 journalists by launch time (21,000-plus applications have flooded in) to man 12 domestic bureaus, with plans for more down the road. At the net’s studio headquarters in Gotham’s New Yorker Hotel, talent and production teams are running through practice drills of six-hour live daytime news blocks. Investigative and longform segments are starting to be banked and docus acquired to fill other dayparts.

Al Jazeera sees the U.S. launch as the final cornerstone to be laid in building its international news network. The org has gained credibility, even prestige, in the U.K., Europe and the Middle East. But the perception of some in the U.S. of it being somehow associated with terrorism, forged in the high-tension moments following the Sept. 11 attacks, will remain a speedbump in its expansion bid.

Al Shihabi downplays the significance of the image problem as a hurdle to expanding its carriage deals. The bigger issue, which no one can dispute, is the difficulty of launching any new linear channel these days at a time when cable operators are already maxed out on capacity and looking to drop underperforming outlets.

Despite its government funding, Al Jazeera is not a nonprofit business. Al Shihabi likened its funding model to that of the BBC or PBS. Al Jazeera America will be on a “path to positive cash flow” in time, he assured, but for now it’s a crucial investment for the parent org. The U.S. channel will have ad support, but only half of the typical commercial load per hour as its rivals. No, that’s not because they’re having trouble lining up advertisers, Al Shihabi said, but because “we strongly believe the audience is more attached if you have a longer hour.”

As much as media bizzers (like me) are fascinated to see how Al Jazeera America will be received by the mainstream Americans it aims to serve, Al Shihabi notes that he’s keeping a careful eye on making sure the U.S. product doesn’t diminish the image Al Jazeera has cultivated with its 27-plus other channels airing in 130 countries.

“We are not changing our journalistic identity for the U.S. channel,” Al Shihabi said. “We’re not like other organizations that are about maximizing profits. Al Jazeera America will reflect the values and the mission of Al Jazeera.”

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