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Sun 22 Apr 2007 12:00 AM

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Tuning in to the YouTube phenomenon

Al Jazeera's deal with the video-sharing site could be a positive step in the network's global platform.

Having been largely denied access to American living rooms via the airwaves, the Al Jazeera brand looks to have found another route into Stateside homes. Last week the group's English language arm signed a deal to launch a channel on Google's YouTube video site. The move will give a global platform to Al Jazeera's choice cuts including Inside Iraq, Frost over the World and Inside Story.

Okay, so the agreement may be nothing ground-breaking - the BBC signed a similar deal with the site earlier this year. For the Qatar-based channel however, it could be a major step towards gaining more recognition in the West and in shedding the Al Jazeera brand's reputation in the US as an alleged form of propaganda machine for terrorists. Last week marked the six-month anniversary of Al Jazeera English. The channel is now beamed to 100 million homes worldwide and has gained a strong presence in Europe, Asia, Australia and Israel, where its news bulletins are broadcast to half a million homes. In the US however, it maintains a relatively minor presence.

"It's extraordinary that while the rest of the world is happy to watch us... the US stands in splendid isolation," said the channel's managing director Nigel Parsons from the station's Qatar headquarters.

To date, no major cable provider in America will carry the station - a fact blamed on political pressure by the network but due to there being "no market" according to US-based broadcasters. Major cable provider Comcast Corporation had been set to launch Al Jazeera English in the Detroit area before making a sudden u-turn. Parsons said he and Wadah Khanfar, director general of Al Jazeera Arabic believed the decision was driven by US political opposition.

"We suspect there was outside pressure, including that of a political nature," Parsons said.

There's little doubt that the Al Jazeera brand faces a tough battle in breaking the US market. The network's Arabic channel has faced much criticism from the Bush administration for its coverage of the US-led war on terror.

Away from the White House, public opinion may need to be swayed if Al Jazeera is to become a genuine contender for American audiences alongside major broadcasters such as CNN or Fox News. In fact, one US-based popular culture website I visited described the Al Jazeera brand as "the Middle East television network of Osama bin Laden fame".

In the meantime, the channel can take heart from the fact that it has jumped aboard one of the greatest marketing platforms on the planet. Where once YouTube was reserved for teenagers looking for the latest pop videos or candid clips, it is now an international phenomenon with the power to influence opinions across the globe. It is estimated that every month the site receives over 20 million visitors who watch 100 million video clips a day.

While the majority of the 65,000 new videos posted daily may be frivolous and produced by and for teenagers, many have political connotations or record important global trends and are helping to increasingly attract an audience more in tune with Al Jazeera's target viewer - something that Parsons appreciates: "YouTube is a perfect platform to reach out to our audience and to give wide and easy access to new viewers around the world," he said.

Having already attracted a plethora of media bigwigs - including British institution Sir David Frost and former CNN frontman Riz Khan - into its newsroom, Al Jazeera English has taken another major stride towards world domination. And, in time, the station's online presence could open the door to a more substantial berth on US television.

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