August 18, 2013
Al Jazeera America Promises a More Sober Look at the News
By BRIAN STELTER
Fourteen hours of straight news every day. Hard-hitting documentaries. Correspondents in oft-overlooked corners of the country. And fewer commercials than any other news channel.
It sounds like something a journalism professor would imagine. In actuality, it is Al Jazeera America, the culmination of a long-held dream among the leaders of Qatar, the Middle Eastern emirate that already reaches most of the rest of the world with its Arabic- and English-language news channels. The new channel, created specifically for consumers in the United States, will join cable and satellite lineups on Tuesday afternoon.
Al Jazeera America is the most ambitious American television news venture since Rupert Murdoch and Roger Ailes started the Fox News Channel in 1996. It faces some of the same obstacles that Fox eventually glided over — including blanket skepticism about whether distributors, advertisers and viewers will give it a chance. But that is where the parallels to other channels end, because Al Jazeera America is going against the grain of seemingly every trend in television news.
“Viewers will see a news channel unlike the others, as our programming proves Al Jazeera America will air fact-based, unbiased and in-depth news,” said Ehab Al Shihabi, the channel’s acting chief executive, on a news conference call last week. He was explicit about what will be different, saying, “There will be less opinion, less yelling and fewer celebrity sightings.”
Mr. Al Shihabi and other Al Jazeera representatives say proprietary research supports their assertions that American viewers want a PBS-like news channel 24 hours a day. Originally the new channel was going to have an international bent; now its overseers emphasize how much American news it will cover and how many domestic bureaus it will have, which some see as an effort to appease skeptics.
Would-be competitors at big broadcast news divisions like NBC and established cable news channels like CNN have mostly shrugged at the start-up. A senior television news executive predicted that Al Jazeera America would, at the outset, receive even lower ratings than the channel it is replacing, Current TV.
Last month the lame-duck Current had about 24,000 viewers in prime time, according to Nielsen data; Fox News had 1.3 million.
Al Jazeera acquired Current TV for $500 million in January to start an American channel, after trying unsuccessfully for years to win cable and satellite carriage for its English-language international news channel.
But with carriage comes concessions. Since distributors discourage their partners from giving programming away on the Internet, Al Jazeera will have to block American users from the live streams of its programming that tend to be popular in periods of tumult overseas.
Al Jazeera will start in about 48 million of the country’s roughly 100 million homes that subscribe to television.
It is in talks with Time Warner Cable, which publicly dropped Current TV upon Al Jazeera’s acquisition. Meanwhile, one of Al Jazeera’s overseas rivals, the British Broadcasting Corporation, continues to press for wider carriage of BBC World News in America.
What is unique about Al Jazeera — its seemingly limitless financing from an oil- and gas-rich government — may be its biggest advantage and its most-remarked-upon weakness.
With a staff of 900, including 400 newsroom employees, it is one of the most significant investments in television journalism in modern times.
Paul Eedle, an Al Jazeera English executive who is helping to start the channel, would not comment on the total budget, but said hundreds of millions of dollars were being spent. “We’re here because we think our journalistic mission has something to offer America,” he said.
Many contend Qatar’s geopolitical aims are a motivator, too. The Al Jazeera name still arouses deep suspicion in some Americans, mostly because of the period immediately after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, when Al Jazeera broadcast messages from Osama bin Laden and was demonized by Bush administration officials as anti-American.
Al Jazeera America officials rebut questions about whether its brand name will hurt its chances on cable by invoking other foreign brands, like Honda, that are now viewed favorably in the United States.
For now, some big sponsors appear to be skittish; Al Jazeera declined to name any major advertisers.
It has cast its lower commercial load — about six minutes an hour, compared with more than 15 minutes an hour on another news channels — as a perk for viewers. “Not cluttering the news with commercials,” Mr. Al Shihabi said after a studio tour in New York on Thursday.
He was swarmed by reporters, evincing widespread interest — at least among journalists — in the premiere of the channel.
“I am reminded of three other news organization launches in the U.S. that were transformative,” Bob Meyers, president of the National Press Foundation, wrote in a blog post last week. “One was the launch of CNN on June 1, 1980; the second was the launch of Bloomberg News in 1990; and the third was the launch of Politico in 2007.”
He suggested that Al Jazeera America was in the same category, saying, “Could be fun, and even beneficial, to watch.”
On Tuesday, the anchors will look vaguely familiar: most have histories at one or more of the major American television networks. Some of them, like John Seigenthaler, had left the business and said they thought they would not take another job in television, until Al Jazeera came along.
“They said: ‘We want to do real news. We want to give it context and perspective and make it balanced and in-depth.’ I thought, ‘Gee, this is a dream come true,’ ” he said.
Mr. Seigenthaler (the anchor of the weekend editions of “NBC Nightly News” until 2007) will kick off prime time at 8 p.m. with a straightforward newscast. “America Tonight,” a newsmagazine, will follow at 9 p.m. It will be hosted by Joie Chen (a CBS News correspondent until 2008), and has been billed as Al Jazeera’s flagship program. Antonio Mora (a former “Good Morning America” news anchor who spent the last 10 years at local stations) will take over at 10 p.m. with a talk show called “Consider This.”
Al Jazeera’s approach — more time for more serious journalism — is an implicit criticism of the other options for news on television.
Mr. Mora said he had sensed far less commercial pressure at Al Jazeera than at local stations where he had worked. “There’s a sense here of the news being a public trust,” he said.
None of the anchors said they had felt any slant in coverage plans, pro-Qatar or otherwise, despite accounts from some former Al Jazeera English employees of interference from above.
In interviews, the anchors made offhand remarks that it is hard to imagine counterparts at other networks making. For instance, Ms. Chen asked: “How big does our audience need to be? I don’t know. Nobody talks about that here.”
She was scheduled to be in South Dakota over the weekend, filing stories from an Indian reservation.
“That’s not even a pitch I would have made in my old newsroom,” she said, because of budget limitations. “Here, we never have any debate about resources,” she said. “It’s like this: ‘Is that a good story?’ ‘Yes, it’s a good story.’ ‘Then go tell it.’ ”