Tomorrow, 48 million cable subscribers will turn on their televisions to find another 24-hour cable news network fighting for their attention: Al Jazeera America.
Brian Stelter at The New York Times calls it "the most ambitious American television news venture since Rupert Murdoch and Roger Ailes started the Fox News Channel in 1996." The channel is promising more foreign correspondents and fewer talking heads, with 14 hours of straight news a day, documentaries, and fewer commercials than the competition.
"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, Al Jazeera America's acting chief executive, told reporters last week. "There will be less opinion, less yelling, and fewer celebrity sightings."
The network doesn't need stellar ratings right out of the gate. As The Daily Beast's Christopher Dickey notes, "Its pockets are too deep for it to fail, at least in the short term." Funded by the government of oil-rich Qatar, it has already hired 900 people, including former NBC News anchor John Seigenthaler, and CNN veterans Joie Chen and Ali Velshi.
Eventually, however, Al Jazeera America will have to find an audience. And there is no evidence that cable-news watchers are even interested in straight news anymore. Here's Dylan Byers at Politico:
But Al Jazeera has yet to prove that the appetite for a straightforward newsgathering channel actually exists in the United States. When asked for evidence that it does, proponents will cite the spike in viewership during Al Jazeera English’s livestream coverage of the 2011 Arab Spring, which could be viewed for free online. But those numbers subsided as quickly as they spiked.
Meanwhile, the relatively infinitesimal demand for channels like BBC and CNN International, which Al Jazeera is likely to emulate — albeit with far more domestic coverage — suggests that Americans are content without such a channel. CNN’s own tack away from the traditional newsgathering model provides further cause for doubt. [Politico]
Furthermore, Al Jazeera is remembered by many Americans as the network that broadcast messages from Osama bin Laden after 9/11.
"For many Americans, the perception is these are the folks who brought you Osama bin Laden," Allen Adamson, a managing partner of marketing firm Landor Associates, told the Los Angeles Times. "Even though they were providing a news function, there was a case of don't confuse me with the facts."
That negative association could have been part of the reason why Time Warner Cable dropped the network after it bought its way into the U.S. market by purchasing Current TV for a reported $500 million.
To combat the anti-American perception, Shihabi has stressed to the media that it "is an American channel for the American audience." The hope is that catering to American audiences will improve its performance over Al Jazeera English, which, as of last month, only reached 4.7 million households in America.
"There was an aversion in the marketplace, especially among (cable and satellite) distributors," Shibley Telhami, a Brookings Institution analyst, told USA Today. "It's the TV station Americans love to hate."
There are also questions of whether a TV network funded by a Persian Gulf monarchy can be impartial in its coverage of U.S.-Middle East relations. Tony Burman, former head of Al Jazeera English from 2008 to 2010, claims in the Toronto Star that he "never sensed any involvement by Qatar's government in our journalism," but that doesn't mean things couldn't change:
That was then and this is now. The Qatari government now assumes a far greater importance in the Middle East than when I was in Doha. And, I am certain, Al Jazeera's performance is now closely monitored if not influenced by Qatar's government. I do know there was no feeling within Al Jazeera when I was in Doha that the American project should assume the financial importance it now does.
Question: "Does it make sense that Al Jazeera's new-found timidity in its dealings with the United States flows from a desire by its Qatari patrons to improve relations with Washington?"
Answer: Good question. [Toronto Star]
Even if Americans are ready to forget their initial impressions of Al Jazeera, the network still faces a crowded market that proved too competitive for its predecessor, Current TV. That network also had star power, including a famous co-founder, former Vice President Al Gore, and a well-known anchor, Keith Olbermann.
Last month, a paltry 24,000 people tuned into Current TV during primetime, compared to the 1.3 million who watched Fox News. Whether the likes of John Seigenthaler and Joie Chen can do any better against Sean Hannity and Rachel Maddow remains to be seen.