After more than a decade attempting to break into the American mainstream, Qatar-owned news network Al Jazeera America is set to launch on American cable networks Tuesday afternoon. In contrast to other mainstream cable news channels like MSNBC and Fox News, Al Jazeera America has announced its intention to focus almost entirely on hard news and serious discussion of current issues.
“Viewers will see a news channel unlike the others, as our programming proves Al Jazeera America will air fact-based, unbiased and in-depth news,” Ehab Al Shihabi, the channel’s acting chief executive, told the New York Times. “There will be less opinion, less yelling and fewer celebrity sightings.”
For years, Al Jazeera has attempted to break into the American market, but after years of rejections from major networks, the company decided to take a more drastic route, purchasing Al Gore’s Current TV for $500 million in January to ensure a slot on American cable.
The newly launched Al Jazeera America will take the place of Al Gore’s former pet project Current TV on cable listings in more than 45 million homes across the nation. Time Warner dropped Current TV from its packaging soon after the Al Jazeera sale was announced. Current TV rarely topped more than 25,000 primetime viewers (while Fox News routinely brings in 1-2 million).
In order to draw a significant American audience, Al Jazeera America has recruited some familiar names from other news networks. Broadcast journalism veterans John Seingenthaler, Joie Chen, Kate O’Brian and more are all set to begin broadcasting from Al Jazeera America’s New York City offices on Tuesday afternoon. At the same time, Al Jazeera has promised at least 14 hours of hard news every day, offering a bold new choice for viewers frustrated with traditional American cable news.
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Still, despite all the benefits of such a dedicated news outlet, it remains to be seen whether or not Al Jazeera can capture a significant audience in America. After the September 11th attacks, the Bush administration vilified Al Jazeera for broadcasting Osama bin Laden’s videos. Given the network’s Arabic name and ties to Qatar, some Americans may never get over their initial distrust of the organization, despite its sterling reputation among journalists.
"Everyone acknowledges all the way up to the top that there's a tremendous branding and image cliff to climb among a certain (audience) segment," correspondent Paul Beban, formerly of ABC News, explained to the Denver Post. "We realize there are some people we are not going to win over — that is reality."
Despite some Americans’ distrust of the network, however, Al Jazeera has slowly built up somewhat of a cult following in the United States. For years, American viewers have been able to access Al Jazeera’s English-language international broadcasts for free over the web, and Al Jazeera reports that as many as 40 percent of viewers come from the United States. It’s a small show of support, but it proves that Al Jazeera America has some legs in the States.