Al Jazeera America Enters US Market: Will It Be Viable?

Al Jazeera America Enters US Market: Will It Be Viable?

For many Americans, their first encounter with Al Jazeera was in 2001, when the network aired video recordings of Osama Bin Laden after the September 11 attacks. With no further context to inform their viewpoints, Americans associated the Qatari media giant with Islamic terrorism.

On Tuesday last week, Al Jazeera America (AJAM) aired its first programming in U.S. homes. After buying Al Gore’s foundering network Current TV for $500 million in January, AJAM quickly mobilized roughly 900 employees in 12 bureaus around the United States (in Chicago, Dallas, Denver, Detroit, Los Angeles, Miami, Nashville, New Orleans, New York, San Francisco, Seattle and Washington, DC) for the August launch. It recruited veteran journalists including Soledad O’Brien (formerly of NBC News and CNN) and Joie Chen (formerly of CNN and CBS News) as lead anchors, and Kate O’Brien (formerly of ABC News) as network president.

With the purchase of Current TV, AJAM inherited 45 million homes, which it hopes to use as a base to challenge the other big networks: CNN, Fox News and MSNBC. It aims to distinguish itself by avoiding the partisan politics and talk show banter regularly featured on the big three networks in favor of more substantive coverage. Its tagline, “There’s more to it,” reflects that approach.

As AJAM enters the market, questions loom about its potential to challenge the well-established networks. First, it will have to overcome the negative associations that many Americans have — justified or not — with the channel. In a recent survey, 75 percent of people who had never watched Al Jazeera reported holding a negative view of the brand. Reflecting these suspicions, former Fox News anchor Glen Beck went on record calling AJAM “the voice of the enemy.” AJAM will need to combat this negative perception if it hopes to attract viewers.

And public suspicion is not the only factor with which AJAM will have to contend as it attempts to establish a foothold. It faces well-established competitors in the likes of Fox News (1.2 million nightly viewers), CNN (477,000 nightly viewers), and MSNBC (362,000 nightly viewers).

Meanwhile, AJAM inherits a viewership of 42,000 per night from Current TV. Reaching 45 million homes, AJAM doesn’t have nearly the reach of CNN, which airs in 100 million homes.

Although AJAM inherited most of Current TV’s cable contracts, it lost 10-12 million viewers when Time Warner dropped it after the purchase in January and another five million video customers when AT&T dropped it from U-verse pay-TV just this past week. AJAM is suing AT&T for wrongful cancellation. No matter which way that suit goes, AJAM will need to work hard to reach more Americans’ television screens.

Despite these challenges, there are some factors that could lead to success for AJAM.

First, with the backing of the wealthy Qatari government, the network has significant wherewithal. As such, it will not be faced with the same pressure to turn a profit that other stations might experience.

An immediate byproduct of this fact is the relatively low number of commercials it airs compared to its peer networks. AJAM runs only six minutes of commercials per hour, which is less than half the amount of time devoted to advertisements by most of its competitors. Spend some time watching the channel and this difference will be quickly noticeable.

In addition to more airtime, AJAM’s abundance of resources could also lead to better reporting. As a subset of the global Al Jazeera brand, AJAM boasts the resources of a substantial network of bureaus and reporters all over the world that will result in enhanced coverage of international news. Meanwhile, free from market pressures, it will have the luxury of focusing on what it deems to be the highest quality reporting, as opposed to what sells.

There’s sure to be more to this story, so tune in to AJAM and keep an eye on its ratings.

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