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Al-Jazeera, Onetime 'Terror TV,' Sets Sights On U.S. Audience

  • Heather Maher

Al-Jazeera bought Current TV, the struggling cable network started by former Vice President Al Gore (above), for an undisclosed sum.

Al-Jazeera bought Current TV, the struggling cable network started by former Vice President Al Gore (above), for an undisclosed sum.

The first time Al-Jazeera announced it wanted to break into the U.S. television market, in 2005, it was thwarted by a hostile political climate and TV executives who refused to carry the Arab-owned network for patriotic reasons.

It was the height of the Iraq War, and senior members of George W. Bush's administration had labeled Al-Jazeera a “voice of the enemy” and a “terrorist network” for giving air time to Al-Qaeda members and sympathizers.

Cathy Rasenberger, whose company, Rasenberger Media, tried to negotiate U.S. distribution deals for Al-Jazeera, remembers the challenge.

“It was not a particularly receptive political environment for Al-Jazeera English to enter the United States," she says, "and there was a great deal of misperception about the network at the time. So we did not secure a lot of distribution in 2006. In fact, it launched to over 200 million households worldwide. And in the United States, we were only launched in probably 100,000 households.”

Eight years on, things have changed. The Qatari-based station, owned by the country's royal family, that launched in 1996 as a regional Arab news channel is now seen in 130 countries and has won awards for its hard-hitting reporting.

Al-Jazeera Arabic and Al-Jazeera English, which launched in 2006, together reach some 300 million households. Al-Jazeera Turk is about to launch, and Al-Jazeera Balkans just celebrated its first anniversary.

Turning Around A Failed Channel

Now Al-Jazeera is expanding again, this time into the United States. Al-Jazeera America will reach 40 million households when it launches this spring.

The channel finally won entry into the U.S. market with the purchase -- for an undisclosed sum reported to be $500 million -- of Current TV, a struggling cable network started by former Vice President Al Gore.

Al-Jazeera is seen in 130 countries and has won awards for its hard-hitting reporting.

Al-Jazeera is seen in 130 countries and has won awards for its hard-hitting reporting.

Al-Jazeera “is, in effect, buying a failed channel and hoping to turn it around,” says Philip Seib, author of “The Al-Jazeera Effect.”

Seib says it won’t be easy to succeed in the crowded landscape of U.S. networks, but if Al-Jazeera wants to compete with CNN and the BBC, it has to try.

“For Al-Jazeera, it’s a matter of international credibility. If they want to be a major player in the international news business, they have to be able to reach the American audience,” he says.

Media analysts say now is a good time for Al-Jazeera to try and capture U.S. viewers because its reputation in America is on the rise.

Nearly 10 million people regularly visit its English-language website and Al-Jazeera English has loyal audiences in its limited distribution area of Washington, D.C., and New York City.

Praised For Coverage

The network’s coverage of the Arab Spring was a high point, impressing Americans who appreciated its in-depth coverage of a story U.S. broadcasters covered lightly, if at all.

Seib believes that when Americans can finally watch Al-Jazeera they’ll see what the rest of the world already knows.

Al-Jazeera Balkans just celebrated its first anniversary.

Al-Jazeera Balkans just celebrated its first anniversary.

“Al-Jazeera is most often criticized by people who have not seen it," Seib says. "And it is dismissed, quite inaccurately I think, by people as being a terrorist news organization and as being highly biased. I don’t think that’s true. It is a solid news organization. I think people who watched Al-Jazeera English’s coverage of the events in the Middle East in 2011 came to respect them for delivering a comprehensive product, delivering it quickly, and being very thorough in its coverage.”

It even made a fan out of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

“Viewership of Al-Jazeera is going up in the United States because it’s real news," she told members of Congress in 2011. "You may not agree with it, but you feel like you’re getting real news around the clock instead of a million commercials, and arguments between talking heads, and the kind of stuff that we do on our news, which is not particularly informative to us, let alone foreigners.”

'Terror TV'

The whiff of controversy isn’t entirely gone, however.

A conservative media group reported the news with the headline, “Terror TV Pays Al Gore $500 Million For U.S. Media Access.”

And it was widely reported that a decision by America’s largest cable TV company to drop Current TV just days after the Al-Jazeera sale was because it didn’t want to do business with the network.

But Cathy Rasenberger says Time Warner had been talking “for over a year” with Current TV about its low ratings and decided to drop it before the sale.

She admits, however, that there’s still “a great deal of confusion” between Al-Jazeera Arabic and Al-Jazeera English, which are separate networks.

The Arabic channel offers a distinctively regional perspective, while the English channel “is more like CNN or the BBC,” she says.

Al-Jazeera America plans to open several U.S. bureaus and employ 300 correspondents. But only 60 percent of its programming will be produced in the United States. The rest will be international news.

That raises questions about its appeal to American viewers, long seen as less interested in foreign affairs. Rasenberger sees that changing, however.

“There’s a hunger -- which has been demonstrated by the demand for Al-Jazeera English during the Arab Spring -- a hunger for an alternative perspective and more coverage of global news,” she says.

“Will Al-Jazeera America generate high ratings?” she asks. “Probably not, but it fills a very big hole.”

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