Al Jazeera launches channel in US – but will anyone watch?

Broadcaster remains associated in many American minds with the Bin Laden tapes it aired in aftermath of 9/11

When it plunges into the US television market tonight, the Qatar-based news broadcaster Al Jazeera will, by one measure, have a very low threshold to prove success.

It will be taking the cable slot hitherto occupied by Current, the network founded by Al Gore. Last month Current was reaching a mere 24,000 viewers in prime time.

With a declared mission to provide a sober, “no yelling” roster of non-stop world news, the brand new Al Jazeera America is likely in every other respect to face some severe headwinds including competition from the established heavyweights, CNN, Fox and MSNBC. It has built-in name recognition, but that may not be a good thing.

Even more than a decade later, Al Jazeera remains associated in many American minds with the Osama bin Laden tapes it aired in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, drawing criticism at the time from officials in the White House. That, according to most experts, will hamper the network’s attempt to win the trust not just of viewers but also advertisers.

Timid, however, the nascent network is not. As when the broadcaster launched Al Jazeera English in 2006 – creating waves by hiring Sir David Frost – it has met every obstacle in America with both cash and a focus on journalism. It first bought Current for $500m in January and thereafter has built from scratch a whole new US-based TV operation and accompanying website. According to The Hollywood Reporter, something around $600m has been spent.

For news professionals otherwise facing a frigid hiring environment, it has provided a boon. For now it has a staff of roughly 900. Top-billing anchors who will be familiar to US viewers include Joie Chen and Soledad O’Brien from CNN and John Seigenthaler formerly of NBC. 

The network promises to keep commercial breaks down to six minutes for each hour, rather than industry norm of 15 minutes, to allow more space for news. Suggest this perhaps has to do with advertisers not quite beating down their doors, and the network bristles.

“It is untrue that Al Jazeera America in unable to attract advertisers,” a spokesman told The Independent. “Our decision to limit the number of commercial minutes per hour is based solely on a desire to provide our viewers with in-depth coverage. This is one of the things that distinguishes Al Jazeera America from other news channels.” Another is not following the path of MSNBC and Fox in wearing a political bias on its sleeve.

But in the end, Al Jazeera’s biggest secret weapon may simply be its budgets. “What we’re doing is not the same as a traditional revenue-based cable network,” Ms Chen told reporters. “We spend a lot of time talking about what we want our themes to be.  We don’t spend time thinking how can we do this the cheapest way possible.”

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