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Al Jazeera's bid to expand U.S. audience may be a tough sell

January 4th, 2013 12:35 pm by By Joe Flint and Meg James, Los Angeles Times (MCT)

LOS ANGELES — Al Jazeera has built a formidable presence around the globe, but the Qatar news service has struggled to establish itself in the United States.


With the acquisition of Current TV, a cable network available in more than 40 million homes, the media company could have the platform it needs to establish itself here and change perceptions about its editorial mission.


“Our commitment to the voice of the voiceless, bringing stories from underreported regions across the world and putting the human being at the center of our news agenda, is at the heart of what we do,” Al Jazeera Director General Ahmed bin Jassim Al Thani said in a statement.


Current TV, founded by former Vice President Al Gore and legal entrepreneur Joel Hyatt, catered to viewers with liberal sensibilities. But it has had a very small audience.


Al Jazeera plans to give Current TV a significant makeover, rename the network Al Jazeera America and turn it into a news channel with a heavy focus on international coverage. The mix of news for Al Jazeera America will be 60 percent domestic and 40 percent international, said Stan Collender, a spokesman for the network.


Al Jazeera, which has deep pockets, said it will more than double Current TV’s staff to more than 300 and plans to have 10 bureaus in the United States to complement its international reporting. Al Jazeera already has more than 80 bureaus and more than 400 reporters around the world.


Although only available on television in a handful of U.S. cities, Al Jazeera English has built a loyal following among decision makers in Washington. Former Secretary of State Colin Powell told Gore that Al Jazeera is the only cable news network he watches, according to Hyatt. As part of the plans to build Al Jazeera America, the company will phase out Al Jazeera English service from U.S. TV and Internet.


Despite its reputation in Washington, Al Jazeera has struggled for more than a decade with charges that its coverage of global terrorism was either anti-American or even pro-al-Qaida.


“The Bush administration framed Al Jazeera as a platform for terrorists, and that perception has not changed in the minds of average Americans who don’t know much about Al Jazeera or that part of the world,” said Mohammed el-Nawawy, a professor at the Knight School of Communication at Queens University of Charlotte, N.C., and author of “Al-Jazeera: The Story of the Network That Is Rattling Governments and Redefining Modern Journalism.” “There continues to be a stigma surrounding the network.”


Al Jazeera executives recognize the company has an image issue but counter that a bigger showcase for its work will solve that problem.


“We know there are some folks that don’t like us,” Collender said. “The best way for us to show that there is no bias is to get people to watch.”


The ink on Al Jazeera’s deal was barely dry when one large distributor, Time Warner Cable, said it would no longer carry Current TV or its replacement.


Time Warner Cable was able to drop Current TV from almost 10 million homes because of a clause in its distribution agreement that allowed it to end the deal in the event of an ownership change. Time Warner Cable has been threatening to drop Current TV and its small viewership for some time.


Time Warner Cable, which is not a part of media giant Time Warner Inc., released a statement saying, “We are keeping an open mind, and as the service develops, we will evaluate whether it makes sense, for our customers, to launch the network.”


Other major distributors, including Comcast Corp. and DirecTV, both of which had small stakes in Current TV, are contractually obliged to continue carrying the channel.


Derek Baine, a cable television analyst with consulting firm SNL Kagan, predicts that Al Jazeera will continue to be a hard sell for pay TV distributors.


“They are going to continue to face resistance,” Baine said. “There has been no interest on the part of distributors to carry Al Jazeera. They don’t think American viewers will be interested in this type of news coverage.”


Collender countered that Al Jazeera believes there is an appetite for serious news and added that the majority of coverage will be about America.


“We’re not going to be doing the Kardashians,” he said. “If people want that, there are other places to go.”


Gore has agreed to remain as an advisor to Al Jazeera America, which also could help with the network’s brand, el-Nawawy said.


“Average Americans will say Al Gore is not going to endorse a terrorist network,” he said. “He may be boring, but he’s not a terrorist.”


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©2013 Los Angeles Times


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Distributed by MCT Information Services

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