On paper, at least, it sounds like a winning formula for information-starved viewers: a cable channel promising more serious news, less fluff and little yelling. Tastes great and less filling.
But can Al-Jazeera America, which launched Tuesday, deliver the goods? And will people watch a channel owned by the royal family of oil-rich Qatar?
The fledgling network has proven adept at one thing so far: spending money. By opening the checkbook, it has lured such former network stars as John Seigenthaler, Joie Chen, Ali Velshi and Soledad O’Brien, along with top executives and producers.
But what exactly is the product? Al Jazeera bought its way into roughly half the 100 million cable homes by forking over a half-billion dollars for Al Gore’s low-rated Current TV. But early indications that the new channel would focus heavily on international news have given way to a more America-centric focus, with a dozen bureaus around the U.S.
An early look at the programming suggests that the greater depth promised by the promos may be more of a goal than a reality. The opening newscasts hopscotched from the crisis in Egypt (played straight) to Idaho wildfires to a hunger strike in a California prison, delivering information briskly and professionally, and with cool graphics. But it pretty much looked like what you’d see on Fox News, CNN or MSNBC, with anchors smoothly debriefing correspondents.
The evening hours brought one detailed, textured report on alleged child labor in an overseas factory in Bangladesh whose clothing is sold in Wal-Mart.
The Egypt story loomed as a particular test, since Qatar was a financial supporter of Mohammed Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood government. The channel’s journalists, of course, don’t see themselves as delivering the Qatar line. In 10 minutes of reporting, Seigenthaler’s newscast aired more sympathetic information about the Brotherhood than viewers would typically see on an American network, but there was criticism as well.
On a web-driven show called The Stream, the guests included one whose brother was killed in the violence, but he tearfully explained that the brother had been critical of the Muslim Brotherhood, and other guests also took issue with Morsi’s short reign while denouncing the recent violence. It was a substantive half-hour conversation—made possible in part because the channel has few commercials and has attracted almost no corporate sponsors.
Chen’s program showcased a correspondent’s first-person account of the difficulties of reporting in Cairo—although that story, too, featured an interview with a family whose son had been killed in the pro-Morsi protests.
Needless to say, Al-Jazeera has a bit of an image problem here in the States. It first became famous as the Arab network that ran Usama bin Laden’s videos, and was denounced by top Bush administration officials. Despite some award-winning reporting, the network is saddled with the perception of an anti-American tilt.
As the channel’s CEO, Ehab al Shihabi, told Variety: “We did national testing on the network name. Seventy-five percent of the people who didn’t watch Al Jazeera” had a negative impression, while “90 percent of those who did watch” had a positive impression.
But getting folks to watch may not be easy. People say they want serious journalism—I sure do—and maybe there’s a void left by the established networks, which tend to go wild over a Jodi Arias or George Zimmerman trial. But the programming still has to be good television. And Al-Jazeera America, which has declined to name any major advertisers, is going to have trouble selling commercials unless it puts people in the seats.
Still, the media heavyweights might be a bit complacent. As the Baltimore Sun’s David Zurawik points out, a New York Times piece on the launch contained this comment: “A senior television news executive predicted that Al Jazeera America would, at the outset, receive even lower ratings than the channel it is replacing, Current TV.”
Seriously—a doomsday prediction from an unnamed rival?
One sign of seriousness is that Al-Jazeera America has hired more than 800 people, giving it a powerhouse newsroom larger than that of most newspapers in this country. But the organization’s earlier attempt to break into the market, Al-Jazeera English, never gained much traction.
We’ll soon find out what the organization has learned from that misfire.