Al Jazeera has risen from a single Arabic language news station to a multilingual network offering sports, children's and documentary content. Since the acquisition of the ART sports rights however, the network has come under increasing scrutiny. Digital Broadcast charts the network's rise, and the controversy that could derail it.
Originally an Arabic-language news channel available only in the Middle East and funded by the Qatari government, the Al Jazeera Network has undergone dramatic change since its launch in 1996. Throughout this period, controversy and acclaim have sought it out in equal measure.
Today there are dozens of free-to-air Arabic-language news channels operating in the Middle East, but it is hard to imagine any one of them evolving into one of the most recognisable media brands in the world and one of the most powerful and influential broadcasters in the Middle East. Al Jazeera's Arabic service has the largest market share in the region with an average daily audience of between 30-40 million. The English-language news service is now available in 100 million households with new distribution deals in Europe - and latterly North America - being signed on an almost monthly basis.
The journey from news misfit to media empire took around a decade. Some things never change though. The network still manages to attract attention and provoke debate both inside and outside the Arab World.
At the time of press the network is indefinitely banned from operating in Bahrain. An official statement from the Bahraini government states that: "The freeze will continue until a memorandum of understanding outlining the relations between the ministry and the channel, which preserves the rights of both parties in accordance with the principal of reciprocity in practice of journalism and media, is reached between the two countries [sic]."
The channel pointed out on its website that the ban was issued soon after it had aired a report on poverty in Bahrain.
Last year the channel was banned from Palestine for spreading "falsehoods" after it broadcast comments by a senior member of the Fatah party.
Despite its ties to the Qatari government the network has always taken a different approach to many other state-operated news operations in the region, and has been praised for it impartiality.
The development of the English-language service has been an undoubted success. Finding carriage in the coveted North American market has proven to be more complex an issue than it should have been.
Away from the direct impact that the English news-channel had through its own day-to-day broadcasts, it was also a magnificent public relations coup for Al Jazeera outside of the Arab-world.
High-profile journalists and producers left in their droves to work for the new English-language channel, forcing non-Arabic speakers who had developed preconceptions about the network, to re-evaluate their opinion.
One of the most respected British broadcasters, Sir David Frost and the then golden boy reporter at the BBC, Rageh Omaar, both signed-up.
The launch of Al Jazeera English in 2006 caught many outside the region by surprise. The high production values and the open-minded news agenda, which committed greater volumes of airtime to stories in the developing world, were praised.
The Al Jazeera Documentary channel was borne out of the widespread acknowledgment that the network was consistently able to tell stories that other networks either could or would not.
This selling point alone helped the documentary channel and the English language service to attract a great deal of acclaim from within the industry.
Al Jazeera's investments have not been limited to high-profile on-screen talent. The company has had an active new media department in operation for several years. It was one of the first broadcasters in the Middle East to take advantage of YouTube, by establishing its own channel on the video-sharing network. This allowed it to immediately develop an international point of distribution for its content with effectively no limit on the amount of content it could upload to the site.
It has also developed a triple-pronged mobile TV operation with both news services available in a live streaming format and English language news bulletins available as part of an on-demand service.
It is no secret that Al Jazeera has a mandate to pursue an expanding audience before chasing profit. It is not accurate to say however that it is operating with a blank chequebook.
Though still funded in-part by the Qatari government, Al Jazeera has, like many other state-backed media in the region, begun to follow commercial targets with renewed vigour.
When founded from the ashes of the old BBC Arabic and Orbit joint venture in 1996, the network received a loan of around $130m from HH Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al Thani, Emir of Qatar, and was given the target to be self-sufficient by 2001. The network missed this target and has since received further, smaller loans to tide it over. It is understand that advertising, cable carriage agreements and content sales have pushed the network close to the brink of self-sufficiency. One of the big drivers in recent years has been its pay TV sports channels.
Al Jazeera Sport has pieced together a valuable slate of premium content with UEFA Champions league, Italian Serie A and Spanish La Liga football at the top of the bill. In November 2009 the network's bold purchase of pay TV operator ART's sports bouquet instantly elevated it to the front of the pack. It also delivered the exclusive broadcast rights to the FIFA World Cup for 2010 and 2014.
Questions were raised regarding how the network planned to provide access the content. Satellite subscribers are required to use the Al Jazeera Sport encryption card and STB. Would Al Jazeera simplify matters by making the World Cup channels part of other DTH pay TV operator's bouquets or would a second box be required?
There were also questions over payment. With rumours circulating that the network was looking to recoup as much of its investment in the ART sports rights as possible by ramping up the World Cup prices.
During the past two months there has been much grumbling - first inside the industry and then among the public - regarding the Al Jazeera plans. The price is not necessarily the issue - $100-$130 for 64 matches works out very economical indeed - the pre-requisite to sign-up for a 12-month subscription in addition to this charge seems to be the main stumbling block.
There has also been much criticism of the lack of information made available to the public regarding the distribution plans for the World Cup. The event is almost considered a human right by some die-hard football fans. It must also be remembered that large portions of the region's expatriate communities will be experiencing having to pay to view the tournament for the very first time. With just weeks to go until the start of the competition many were still unsure of how to view the tournament.
At the time of press one internet service provider in Saudi Arabia - GO Telecom - had announced that it had would offer access to the World Cup alongside subscriptions, cable operator E-vision had secured access for its subscribers (as long as they also subscribed to Al Jazeera Sports and paid around $100) and rival du had yet to secure a deal but had indicated that one was close. Outside the UAE, the options are limited almost entriely to an Al Jazeera card and a set top box that is compatible with the network's security. Unfortunately, this knowledge has not been widely circulated among the public.
"The World Cup is available on Al Jazeera Sports channels only. We are unaware of any other network that will be re-broadcasting these rights," said Ali Ajouz, SVP marketing, OSN when asked by Digital Broadcast if it would pursue a deal to show the tournament. "On our part, we did approach Al Jazeera but it seems that Al Jazeera wants to keep the World Cup exclusively. And we as OSN have neither promised nor promoted the World Cup at all to our subscribers."
Despite this criticism there are reasons for Al Jazeera to have taken this route and there are aspects of the World Cup plans that it is not being given credit for.
In terms of the satellite broadcasts, it is not unreasonable that it wants customers to view the content through its own platform, giving it full control of the conditional access system guarding the much sought after content.
If Al Jazeera did indeed pay the rumoured $1 billion to acquire the ART sports rights then it is a safe assumption that part of its strategy is to use the World Cup as a loss leader to drive subscriptions rather than something it is looking to monetise directly. In the short term however, this means those who had not already subscribed, and who hold premium sports (particularly football) in high regard, must come to the painful conclusion that Al Jazeera has the near monopoly on these rights, and for them, is a must-have.
It should also be remembered that Al Jazeera Sports will not only deliver the first World Cup to be broadcast in HD across the Middle East, but also the first to be offered in 3D.
It is important that the relative importance of these two developments is not confused.
In the UAE, 3D broadcasts of the competition (via Al Jazeera Sport 3D) will be shown in cinemas. It is anticipated that E-vision could also broadcast the Al Jazeera Sport 3D channel to its subscribers. E-vision CEO told Digital Broadcast in February of this year that the company hoped to offer 3D before the end of 2010 and did not believe that the World Cup would come too soon for its 3D rollout.
From a broadcast technology standpoint, Al Jazeera has excelled. If there are questions to be answered regarding the network's handling of the World Cup, they should be directed at the network's marketing department.
The rollout of HD services in the Middle East took years longer than it could have done. Consumers - particularly in the GCC - have been ready to receive HD for some time. Walk into any consumer electronics store now and 3D is the focus of the big sales push. The early presence of Al Jazeera Sport 3D catapults the format ahead of the early progression of HD and speeds up its path to the living room.
Making content available early on will accelerate take-up of 3D TV sets and stimulate other broadcasters to bring their own 3D plans forward.For all the latest business news from the UAE and Gulf countries, follow us on Twitter and Linkedin, like us on Facebook and subscribe to our YouTube page, which is updated daily.
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