Who would invest in the U.S. launch of a linear, 24/7 cable news network in the current climate of bloodletting for niche cable channels?
Multiple system operator Altice USA is slowly but steadily expanding the cable distribution base for i24News, the Tel Aviv-headquartered news channel that debuted in Israel and other markets in July 2013. The channel focuses on news from and related to the Middle East.
Altice USA, which owns the former Cablevision systems in the New York area, has used its market clout to gain distribution for i24News on Comcast and Charter Communications, the nation’s two largest cable operators. At the same time, Altice USA has increased its investment in the News 12 regional channels that serve Long Island and other markets covered by Altice’s Optimum cable systems.
Drahi, whose net worth is estimated by Forbes at $7.8 billion, sees i24News as a vital independent source of information for viewers in the Middle East, and a market opportunity in the U.S. for those who seek out international news. Altice doesn’t expect to beat Fox News or CNN in the ratings anytime soon, but it does see an opening for a news organization with major resources in a region that is so central to global geopolitical issues.
“We are the [network] where the Middle East connects to the world, and we connect the world to the Middle East,” says Frank Melloul, founder and CEO of i24News.
The channel offers a mix of traditional newscasts and breaking news coverage as well as newsmagazine-style programs, roundtable analysis of current events and talk shows. It broadcasts separate feeds in three languages: Arabic, French and English; the English-language service bowed in the U.S. in early 2017. The channel has bureaus in Times Square, Washington, D.C., and a newly opened outpost in Los Angeles.
Melloul was working for TV France Intl. in 2012 when he got a cold call from Drahi asking for a meeting. Melloul knew Drahi’s name as a media tycoon who owns cable and telecommunications assets in Europe and Israel. He was surprised to learn that Drahi was committed to funding the start-up of a sizable newsgathering organization. Drahi was motivated by his frustration at what he saw as a skewed picture of life in Israel and the Middle East offered by the region’s major news outlet, Al Jazeera, which is operated by the government of Qatar.
“Patrick said to me, ‘I see a lot of diversity on the streets of Tel Aviv, and I see examples of diverse people co-existing in the streets, but when I watch TV, I don’t see that,’” Melloul recalls. “I24News was born to give another perspective. We are the first independent news channel in the Middle East. The language we’re talking is the language of democracy.”
Al Jazeera, of course, lost a fortune just a few years ago trying to field a stand-alone U.S. news channel dubbed Al Jazeera America. After spending $500 million to buy the struggling Current TV cabler and pouring millions more into staff and infrastructure, Al Jazeera pulled the plug on America in 2016. It didn’t even bother trying to find a buyer, because the channel’s financial picture was so bleak.
Altice, on the other hand, has a track record of investing in locally oriented news operations for its major TV assets in Europe. And in the U.S. it gave i24News a leg up by providing cable distribution in the crucial New York City market. All told, Altice USA systems reach about 4.9 million video customers, primarily in New York, Connecticut, Texas and Ohio.
Michael Schreiber, president of Altice USA News Group, says the focus is raising the profile of i24News as a complement to the Big Three — CNN, Fox News and MSNBC — for viewers who may be tiring of the emphasis on domestic political battles. I24News has a tiny audience for now, but it does carry advertising. The channel is also available as a streaming option for $5 a month.
“We see more and more interest in what we’re doing by providing an alternative to the 24/7 commentary on what’s going on in Washington, D.C.,” Schreiber says.
The channel covers news and events in the U.S. if there is a clear connection to the Middle East. Altice also aims to drive collaborations between i24News and News 12, given that the latter’s coverage area is New York.
“The goal is to put these two organizations together in order to build a bigger organization and to benefit from the overlap in coverage areas,” Schreiber says.
Schreiber and Melloul are well aware of how hard it will be to bring a sizable audience to i24News in the current landscape. The hope is that Altice USA’s cable base and the channel’s strength overseas can buoy the business.
“We’re seeing solid growth trends in viewership for i24News and News 12,” Schreiber says. “We want to keep building and investing in news. We are excited about the possibilities.”