For all the hype and controversy surrounding Al Jazeera’s launch in America this month, the event itself proved to be a major turn off for viewers.
According to figures from Nielsen, the first airing of the Qatari broadcaster’s America Tonight programme attracted an audience of just 27,000. This doesn’t stack up well against Fox News’ The O’Reilly Factor, which drew 2.97m. Even CNN’s Anderson Cooper mustered 627,000 viewers during the same time slot.
The numbers make for embarrassing reading for a network that in the run up to its August 20 launch spent $500m acquiring Al Gore’s Current TV and hired hundreds of journalists, including star names like CNN’s Ali Velshi. True, its launch was not helped by the decisions of Time Warner Cable and AT&T not to carry the network, but its potential reach was still a good 50m or so US homes.
The paltry numbers are probably not surprising given the largely negative sentiment stateside, with one Fox News analyst describing Al Jazeera as a mouthpiece for Al Qaeda. “It’s a very unattractive brand in the US,” Claire Enders, of the UK’s Enders Analysis, told me in the run up to the launch. “Americans have very little interest in foreign news services anyway.”
Will the Qatari royal family, which fully owns Al Jazeera, care about this poor turn out? Not one jot I reckon. Backed by the Gulf state’s petrodollars, the station is under no pressure to turn a profit and its operating costs are merely a drop in the ocean for its loaded backers.
What is the point then? With another nine years until the FIFA World Cup 2022, I’d hazard that Al Jazeera America’s intended effect is as a PR tool, designed to portray a country most Americans know next to nothing about in a positive light.
When it comes down to it, Al Jazeera America is most probably an expensive vanity project that is unlikely to reap any awards any time soon.