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Mon 19 Sep 2011 07:18 AM

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Coming to America

The Qatar-based news channel Al Jazeera English is finally making headway in the US market after its coverage of the Arab Spring. But what’s next for the news channel?

Coming to America

As the rest of the Arab world continues to grapple with the turmoil that is this year’s Arab spring, there is one company that can’t help but grow amid the chaos. After sending its reporters to uncover the shocking violence witnessed in Bahrain, Libya and Egypt, five-year-old Al Jazeera English (AJE) has been given a leg-up in the media world, and is becoming increasingly popular both internationally and within the Middle East.

Perhaps the most important outcome for the Qatar-based channel, and indeed, its biggest achievement of the year, has been its big break in New York. After inking a leasing deal with Time Warner to air in the metropolitan area of the state, AJE began broadcasting 23-hours a day on US cable channel RISE, from 8 August.

Al Anstey, the managing director of the channel, says that while the protests were by no means solely responsible for the New York deal, they certainly gave a big boost to the company’s reputation and viewership numbers in the region. Online traffic in particular, shot through the roof in the wake of the troubles.

“What we’ve seen in the last year, with the magnitude of events, the Arab Spring, and the situation in Japan as well... [is] exponential growth in viewership online in the US,” he says. “In the first few days of Egypt, we saw a two and a half thousand percent increase in viewership of the channel, and that exponential increase has continued to grow.”

He adds, however, that AJE had already been in talks with Time Warner well before the events of 2011.

“What’s interesting about New York is that the channel came to us prior to the unrest in Egypt, to say there was an opportunity. When Egypt took place we were able to evidence the pick-up in demand and further our conversations with them.”

New York was also a great starting point, he says, bearing in mind the popularity of the channel there.

“People in New York watch our content online more than any other city in the world, so we saw it as a natural opportunity to step into that market.”

As everyone knows, the venture is crucial to AJE, which previously seemed a long way away from breaking into the US market. Though it was streamed for free on the internet in the US for a number of years, it was carried only on just one satellite service and a small number of cable networks. As a result, it attracted a rather negative reputation related to its US operations, with experts quoted in the New York Times recently accusing the channel of having little leverage in the market, and of achieving poor penetration of the sector. Nevertheless, Anstey remains optimistic. “Conversations with all the big satellite and cable operators in the United States have been going on since we launched, they have been progressing very well in recent months and they are continuing.

“For me, it is a question of when, not if, we make the break through onto other operators in other parts of the United States, as they have got direct demand. In fact, more than 70,000 Americans have emailed the satellite and cable operators directly to ask for AJE to be put on their air. I have anecdotal quotes from those emails that have been sent in,” he says. “We’d like to be across America in the next five years.”

Asked where in the country AJE is eyeing next, Anstey says it is too early to say, and that the decision will be largely dependent on the network’s conversations with other operators. However, he makes it clear that AJE is more popular in some places than others, hinting that these areas could be next. “Clearly there are areas where we are highly watched and there is very big demand, in various cities around California and Texas, but we’re progressing at different stages with different operators.”

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The only issue that could possibly get in the way of the network’s US expansion is the lingering negative perception of Al Jazeera Arabic (AJA). The sister channel, also headquartered in Qatar, was heavily criticised by the American government during the Iraq war due to its broadcast of Al Qaida footage, a move regarded by the Bush administration as ‘perpetuating anti-American propaganda’.

Asked whether he thought this could have any impact on the firm’s US success, Anstey says he doesn’t, but admits that trying to address those “misperceptions” and relieve any hostility towards the channel, remains an ongoing challenge.

“Being frank, there were a lot of misperceptions out there about what Al Jazeera stood for. There were comments about AJA’s coverage of Fallujah during the Iraq war, about factual coverage on the ground in Fallujah during those days. The 45-day conflict in the Iraqi town has been described by some in the US military as the most intense fighting the superpower had witnessed since leaving Vietnam in the 1970s.

“But now that we’re visible, now that we’re distributing in the United States and now that we’re recognised for the quality of what we do, I think those misperceptions are being increasingly confined to history. They do still exist in some quarters, and part of the challenge is to address those misperceptions.”

One way of accommodating a US audience could be to adjust the content of the channel to suit American viewers. Anstey cuts in, and says there is no chance of manipulating content in any part of the world. “We only have one transmission. So what people see on AJE in the US is the same as our audiences worldwide. Are we going to tailor that to the US market? No. We are an international news channel — that is the value we bring to the market place, and that’s how we will continue into the future. We put every country in the world on a level playing field and evaluate the story on its merit. That means we cover the developing world as much as the developed.”

He also maintains that the network continues to be wholeheartedly independent of the government of Qatar. “There has been no interference whatsoever in terms of output, neither in Bahrain, Qatar or anywhere else in the world.”

On the subject of Bahrain, many viewers are interested to know how the channel plans to proceed with its reports in the country after being largely banned from reporting there. Anstey says the channel continues to seek access to and interviews in the kingdom, but has no idea when this will be granted. “I don’t know if they’re letting us in or not, we have requested for interviews with the Bahraini authorities. We are hoping to have a free and full access to Bahrain over the coming weeks.”

Contrary to popular belief, he adds that the ban was not on the back of AJE’s coverage of the recent protests in the country, as originally rumoured, but was in place well before the troubles began. According to previous reports on the subject, the ban followed an earlier ‘breach of media and press laws’.

Anstey admits however, that a recent documentary called Shouting In The Dark, which was filmed in a Manama square at the height of the protests, did manage to ruffle some feathers among Bahraini leaders. So much so, that official complaints were made to the Qatari government, accusing the show of painting a one-sided version of events. Anstey denies any wrongdoing on behalf of the company.

“It showed what we could see on the ground when we were filming, despite the restraints imposed upon us as journalists to actually operate freely in the country. During the course of the week we aired a debate show which featured a member of the main upper council of parliament in Bahrain, and a number of [other] debate shows on the issue. So obviously, we showed one side of the story and we aired the opinion from the other side of the story. We carried out the job of journalism which was to cover the facts on the ground as we could see them.”

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On a lighter note, Anstey says other areas where AJE is looking to expand include India, Australia, Singapore, Brazil and Russia. In India, particularly, the channel has big broadcasting plans, after receiving its landing licence at the end of last year. “We’ll be pushing forward with our distribution in India in the coming months. India is a very important country for us.

“There are also various other territories where we may have distribution across the main cities of a country, but where we want to push out onto other platforms. Australia is one. We’re seen in the main cities in Australia but we want to make sure we can move forward on that and get to distribution in wider Australia and New Zealand and make sure we’re visible.”

Australia is important, he says, given that it’s an English-speaking market, and one which is somewhat forward looking.

Over and above that, Anstey says the strategy moving forward will be to build on the firm’s reputation in regions where it already has a ‘healthy reach’, by improving the content of what is put out and ensuring it is visible to as many people as possible. In Europe, for example, it’s all a question of brand building, he says.

“What we’ve noticed in the last few months in the Arab world has been huge stories, very complicated stories and very fast moving stories, and there has been a global interest in what’s going on. People are hunting reliable news. Right now, in terms of our stage of development and our evolution as a five year-old channel, reach is the priority, revenue is second. We want to build on our reputation and editorial value.”

That’s a task which should be fairly easy, if the turbulent times continue.

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Al Jazeera: A thorn in the side of politics?

Despite its popularity, the Al Jazeera network has got caught up in controversy on a number of memorable occasions:

When the Emir of Qatar met with Dick Cheney

When the emir of Qatar visited Washington during the Bush years, he was invited to see the then vice-president Dick Cheney. Entering the meeting, he was astounded to see Cheney with a large file on his desk, marked ‘Al Jazeera’. “What’s that for?” the emir asked. Cheney told him he intended to complain about the channel’s coverage of the Iraq war. “Then you’ll have to speak to the editors in Qatar,” the emir replied, and walked out of the room.

When The Mirror accused Bush of plotting to blow up Al Jazeera HQ

In the last week of November 2005, a British newspaper, The Daily Mirror, ran a story which linked president Bush with a plot to bomb AJ’s headquarters. According to the report, which was attributed to two anonymous sources who said they had seen a classified document, the American president had expressed his interest in such an attack during a White House conversation with prime minister Tony Blair a year earlier. A source quoted in another paper, the Daily Mail, said Blair told Bush that bombing Al Jazeera “would cause a big problem.” The source was also quoted as saying: “There’s no doubt what Bush wanted to do — and no doubt Blair didn’t want him to do it.”

Al Jazeera facts

•Al Jazeera English (AJE) is a Qatar-based, English-speaking news TV channel, headquartered in Doha. It is the sister channel of Al Jazeera Arabic.

•In January 2007, Al Jazeera English replaced BBC World on Yes, the Israeli satellite television.

•Al Jazeera English has received nominations and awards for news and programming from the International Emmys, The Royal Television Society, The Monte Carlo Film Festival, YouTube, The Foreign Press Association, The Association of International Broadcasters and Amnesty International.

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