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The Hard Sell of Al-Jazeera America
By: Maryann Fabian
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If you were pitching a new brand to America post 9-11 that may or may not be linked to al Qaeda, how would you do it? Today, the new news network Al-Jazeera America will start broadcasting. But will anyone watch? Interim CEO Ehab Al Shihabi said last week that 75 percent of Americans have a negative view of the network. Pew Research reports that Al-Jazeera, the parent network, is “widely viewed as a conduit for al Qaeda.”

Advertisers don’t want to touch it. As a result, there will only be about six minutes of commercials per hour and the website is lacking sponsors, too. That’s half of the on-air ad time that other cable news channels average. And some of that time will be filled with promos for the network itself.

One anonymous Madison Avenue advertiser told the New York Post that he “wouldn’t give them a dime.” Other interesting comments from ad buyers: “Not touching that one.” “[There’s] a much easier way to get that audience with less risk.”

How does Al-Jazeera respond? Its owners, the royal family of Qatar, have enough money to do whatever they want, with or without advertising, thank you very much. Even after forking over $500 million to Al Gore for the purpose of starting an American version of their network.

The news industry is in desperate need of a makeover, though. Can Al-Jazeera do it? Consider the alternative: 24-hour “news” channels that either spend most of the time screaming at each other, stalking celebrities, or talking ad nauseum about one court case and only one court case for months on end. Then there’s the near death of newspapers and news magazines. And don’t you feel sorry for anyone who still thinks they can stay informed by watching the national “nightly news” on ABC, NBC, or CBS?  In contrast to mass layoffs at other news outlets, Al-Jazeera America plans to hire "close to 900" employees and has set up 12 news desks across the country. Add that to the 70 international bureaus, and it's now one of — if not the largest — news-gathering organization in the world. Plus, it’s already lured some familiar faces, such as Soledad O’Brien of CNN, David Shuster from MSNBC, and John Siegenthaler from ABC News.

Talking about the “image problem,” Denver-based correspondent, Paul Beban, told the Denver Post, “There are some people we are just not going to get. I will say to them, no news organization is perfect. All have their own embedded biases. People will have to learn this is a new voice. It’s not anti-American, it’s not pro-political Islam. It’s here to do real journalism.”

According to the Al-Jazeera’s website, “Americans have already shown a great demand" for its news and programs: 40 percent of all online viewing of Al-Jazeera English comes from the United States.

Part of Al-Jazeera’s problem is due to the old network it is replacing. Current TV only averaged about 24,000 viewers in primetime. So asking for a big ramp-up ahead of time wouldn’t make sense. Time-Warner dropped the channel as soon as it heard of the sale to Al-Jazeera. The channel will only be available in about half of the actual number of cable TV households, around 50 million homes. It will have to build from there and it’s already asking viewers to request it from their cable providers.

An unbiased, real news game changer that schools the other networks on journalism? Or a pro-Arab, anti-Israel propaganda machine that no one will watch? Guess we’ll have to find out.

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About the Author
Maryann Fabian is a copywriter who has crafted the voice of some of this country's best brands.
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