Al Jazeera's (R)evolution

By Vivarelli, Nick | Variety, February 11-February 17 | Go to article overview

Al Jazeera's (R)evolution


Vivarelli, Nick, Variety


With buyout of Current TV, award-winning Arab newsie eyes legitimacy in the U.S.

Having won awards for its coverage of the Arab Spring with a news operation that reports on events in far-flung countries with the hustle that has become its trademark, Al Jazeera has come a long way since it started airing 16 years ago out of Doha with a loan from the Emir of Qatar eager to put his country on the global media stage.

Now, after the network plunked down $500 million to buy Al Gore's cabler, Current TV, since renamed Al Jazeera America - as well as pricey sports rights buys for sister network BeIN - perhaps Al Jazeera will begin to be known as much for muscle as hustle.

The deal marks a watershed for the Qatar-based network, giving it access to 41 million U.S. households (it had a mere 4.7 million before the deal). Internationally, it reaches more than 260 million homes in 130 countries. Al Jazeera claims to have at least 80 million viewers globally, with about half of them in the Arab world, according to analytics by Allied Media Corp., which acts as its U.S. advertising agent.

At the heart of the company's expansion is Al Jazeera English, launched in 2006 as a competitor, and counterweight, to CNN International and BBC World, with production hubs in Qatar, London, Washington, D.C., and Kuala Lumpur. The English offshoot now boasts an estimated reach of around 100 million households.

"Al Jazeera English has a totally different audience (than Al Jazeera's Arabic operation)," says Arab Media scholar William Youmans. "Its news is more international, more about South America, Africa and East Asia, whereas the Arabic channel has more of a regional content in terms of focus. Both take pride in shaking things up politically; but I don't see a lot of commonality beside that."

Now headed by Al Anstey, former foreign news topper at the U.K.'s ITN, Al Jazeera English churns out the news in a 24-hour cycle that shifts to provide relevant news to primetime viewers in different regions. At a time when American networks have cut their foreign news bureaus to the bone, Al Jazeera has bureaus in 65 countries.

In the U.S., Al Jazeera English will feature "more U.S. news than foreign," according to Al Jazeera U.S. spokesman Stan Collender, who characterized the new entity as "a completely new allnews channel." Some 60% of the news content will be produced in the U.S., and the remaining 40% will come from Al Jazeera English.

Al Jazeera has advertised more than 100 job openings in New York and Washington, including 54 producers, 20 editors, investigative journalists, and a New York-based anchor.

These vacancies give a glimpse of their U.S. plans. The beats include news, sports, economics, science and technology, and producer and executive producer posts for news, sports, and business.

Al Jazeera has already secured a less controversial presence in the U.S. via beIN Sport BeIN Sport, a subsidiary of the network owned by Al Jazeera Sports Media Network. Bein has three channels in France, has launched two channels in the U.S. and last year plunked down $450 million last year for broadcast rights to top soccer leagues in France, Spain, Italy and the U.K.. Tellingly, it recently snapped up U.S. rights to matches played by the United States national team as it seeks to qualify for the 2014 World Cup. Qatar will host the World Cup in 2022.

BeIN is carried in the U.S. on Time Warner Cable, DirecTV, Dish, Bright House Cable and Comcast.

While it seems that the network plans to pump money into an all-news U.S. channel, .it's certain that the company is working to burnish its image in the U.S., where it had been running into carriage issues before buying Current.

The stigma against Al Jazeera in America is due largely to the Bush administration's contention that it had links to Al Qaeda, since the network aired videos provided by Osama bin Laden after the 9/1 1 terror attacks. The network responded at the time that it had been given the tapes because it has a large Arab audience, and said it was operating in a manner consistent with the New York Times when it printed messages from the Unabomber. …

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