| NEW YORK
NEW YORK Aug 16 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
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
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."