Al-Jazeera America begins wooing viewers

Joie Chen, host of the new Al Jazeera America nightly news program America Tonight, sits at the anchor desk in the network's studio space at the Newseum in Washington, DC, August 16, 2013. (AFP PHOTO / Saul LOEB)

WASHINGTON: Al-Jazeera America begins wooing U.S. viewers Tuesday, with a vast campaign using traditional and social media for its cable channel launch, pledging to outdo its rivals with serious in-depth journalism.

With a launch set for 1900 GMT, the Qatar-based media group took out full-page ads in The New York Times, Wall Street Journal and USA Today, and kept up a barrage over social media including Twitter, Facebook and Tumblr.

“Change the way you look at news,” the ad in The Wall Street Journal states. “Get more depth, More perspective. Every day.”

On Facebook, Al-Jazeera America called itself “the new American TV news channel that connects you to the human stories at the heart of the news.”

The channel will reach more than 40 million households and vastly expands the footprint of Al-Jazeera despite questions about how it will be received by American viewers.

Even before its launch, social media was abuzz over the channel and its new programs. Some expressed concern that Al-Jazeera was ending its streaming Internet of its English-language service, which according to executives was required under cable TV contracts.

On Facebook, the Al-Jazeera America page had 66,000 likes and a variety of comments. “Cool! Kind of excited to see what you kind folks come up with!” one person wrote.

However, another comment said, “You better embrace the foundation of which this country was created for FREE PEOPLE or we will remove you from this country.”

Others said it was unclear if the channel would truly break new ground.

Jeff Jarvis, a City University of New York journalism professor, said on Google+ he was skeptical: “They hired people straight out of traditional TV news; they tried hard not to hire foreigners. But what I was hoping for was a new form with new perspectives.”

Americans will be able to get 14 hours of news, documentary and discussion programming daily, and updates at the top of every hour 24 hours each day. But the selling point will be long-form reporting of stories overlooked by other news organizations.

Yet it is likely to face a tough sell to U.S. audiences because of its history in the Middle East, where it was the outlet for videos distributed by Al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden. Some conservatives claim it is still anti-Western.

Ehab al-Shihabi, interim chief executive of Al-Jazeera America, said U.S. viewers will come around once they see the programs.

He said surveys indicate that “75 percent of people who did not watch Al-Jazeera came on the negative size and 90 percent of those who watch Al-Jazeera came on the positive side.”

Shihabi said 850 staff have been hired for 12 U.S. bureaus, and will draw on 70 bureaus worldwide to give Al-Jazeera unmatched scale.

Since acquiring Current TV, a struggling U.S. cable channel, Al-Jazeera has brought in well-known names in the industry, such as former CNN and CBS journalist Joie Chen, former NBC news anchor John Seigenthaler and David Shuster, a veteran of Fox News and MSNBC.

Along with 24-hour news, Al-Jazeera will include several showcase programs starting with the 5 p.m. time slot and carrying into “prime time” evening viewing.

The channel will have only six minutes of advertising per hour, compared with an average of 15 minutes for most other channels.

Al-Jazeera’s U.S. operation is headquartered in New York, with a vast news hub and studio located across from Penn Station.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on August 21, 2013, on page 10.




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