Al Jazeera America needs to define mission to find viewers

NEW YORK Fri Aug 16, 2013 6:56pm EDT

NEW YORK Aug 16 (Reuters) - Cable TV viewers and advertisers will find out on Tuesday what Al Jazeera America stands for: is it a U.S. network, a Mideast news outlet, or something in between?

Defining its mission clearly will be crucial for Al Jazeera to gain a foothold in the United States, a goal that has so far eluded the award-winning network funded by the emir of Qatar, according to advertisers, executives and industry experts.

Globally, Al Jazeera is seen in more than 260 million homes in 130 countries. But the English version of the network has so far struggled to find distributors in the United States, in part because it was perceived as being anti-American, particularly at the height of the U.S. War in Iraq.

"There are obvious questions about the network," said Chris Geraci, director of national television ad buying at OMD, the media agency of Omnicom. "I don't know that the message had gotten out as clearly as it can yet."

Al Jazeera America secured U.S. Pay TV distribution when it acquired former U.S. Vice President Al Gore's Current TV in January. The companies did not disclose how much Al Jazeera paid, but analysts pegged the deal at $500 million.

Executives at Al Jazeera America pledged to cover the U.S. domestic market, and opened bureaus in cities they considered under-served, such as Detroit, New Orleans and Nashville. It hired ABC news veteran Kate O'Brian to be its president.

Geraci, who helps oversee several billion in ad dollars for clients, said the network has focused on the U.S. audience in presentations to Madison Avenue advertising sales executives.

"If they don't focus on the U.S., they aren't going to have a U.S. audience," said Geraci, adding that he would consider advising clients to advertise on Al Jazeera America.

Some other experts warn that too narrow a focus on U.S. news would downplay Al Jazeera's extensive Mideast and international expertise, and could hurt chances of success.

"Their asset and thing they obviously bring to the party is a global network of correspondents that rival anybody. They ought to tout that," said Merrill Brown, a former media executive who helped launch cable network MSNBC.

Al Jazeera's coverage of the Arab Spring uprisings has been top notch and viewed favorably in the United States, added Brown, now the director of the media and communications school at Montclair State University.

Al Jazeera executives say they will not water down the brand's international focus to please an American audience.

"The intent and ambition has been absolutely clear from day one. The vision is in depth, unbiased, human-centered reporting on the whole of America," Paul Eedle, deputy launch manager for programming at Al Jazeera America, said in an interview.

He said the network would definitely cover international news because "Americans aren't getting as much of that as they would wish."

Eedle on Friday gave reporters a tour of Al Jazeera's sprawling newsroom in midtown Manhattan, bustling with staffers at their desks and in control rooms.

The main studio, where most of the 14 hours of live content will be filmed, features orange hues that evoke the logo of the parent company. But there are also a lot of blue and gold tones - colors that a design firm told Al Jazeera would appeal to an American audience.

Al Jazeera has said it will air six minutes of commercials per hour, well below the 15 to 16 minute industry average on cable news. It has indicated that it is willing to lose money on the venture in the near term.

Al Jazeera America's interim Chief Executive Ehab Al Shihabi said on a conference call on Thursday that the network will have advertising from consumer products and services companies, but declined to name sponsors before the Tuesday launch.

For now, Al Jazeera will rely on revenue from subscription deals from cable TV providers. It has agreements in place with Comcast Corp, Verizon Communications Inc's FiOS, AT&T Inc's U-Verse, DirecTV and Dish Network Corp. Time Warner Cable Inc, which dropped Current TV after it was sold in January, has not said whether it would carry Al Jazeera.

Al Jazeera will be available in more than 40 million U.S. homes, about half of the reach of Time Warner Inc's CNN.

This limited distribution could spoil its ambition to be the destination for viewers who want to watch breaking news, said Deborah Potter, the president of NewsLab, a group dedicated to improving news quality.

"They have people on the ground all over the world, cameras rolling," she said. "Their biggest problem now is whether anyone can see them."

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