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Al-Jazeera America needs to define mission to find viewers | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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A news photographer films the logo of the new Al Jazeera America nightly news program America Tonight in the network’s studio space at the Newseum in Washington, DC, August 16, 2013. (AFP PHOTO/Saul LOEB)

A news photographer films the logo of the new Al Jazeera America nightly news program America Tonight in the network's studio space at the Newseum in Washington, DC, August 16, 2013. (AFP PHOTO/Saul LOEB)

A news photographer films the logo of the new Al-Jazeera America nightly news program “America Tonight” in the network’s studio space at the Newseum in Washington, D.C., on August 16, 2013. (AFP PHOTO/Saul LOEB)

New York, Reuters—Cable TV viewers and advertisers will find out on Tuesday what Al-Jazeera America stands for: is it a US network, a Middle East 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, 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 US 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 US Pay TV distribution when it acquired former US 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 USD 500 million.

Executives at Al-Jazeera America pledged to cover the US 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 US audience in presentations to Madison Avenue advertising sales executives.

“If they don’t focus on the US, they aren’t going to have a US 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 US news would downplay Al-Jazeera’s extensive Middle East 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 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 pay 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 US 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.”