Al Jazeera’s American Play

Al Jazeera’s American Play

Al Jazeera America arrives on the U.S. cable TV scene in a bid to win goodwill and market share through an increasingly rare news-heavy format, says expert William Youmans.

August 19, 2013 12:14 pm (EST)

To help readers better understand the nuances of foreign policy, CFR staff writers and Consulting Editor Bernard Gwertzman conduct in-depth interviews with a wide range of international experts, as well as newsmakers.

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The launch this month of Al Jazeera America raises questions about the Qatar-funded station’s motives and prospects for success in a crowded cable TV marketplace. Qatar’s government appears to be trying to advance a public diplomacy mission by emphasizing a strong news presence, says William Youmans, a media expert and assistant professor at George Washington University. The channel, investing hundreds of millions of dollars, could succeed in an increasingly fragmented news landscape, he says. "There’s a large percentage of Americans who still think of Al Jazeera as sort of terrorism TV," Youmans says. "But there’s a significantly larger population that will be open minded if the product is good, if the product is professional."

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On August 20, Al Jazeera America launches with what it calls a "fact-based, in-depth news program," running about fourteen hours a day of original content. Why is it doing this?

Al Jazeera has been spending the last seven years trying to get into the U.S. market. It was initially trying with its Al Jazeera English channel. It wasn’t having much luck, however. At most it was able to reach about five million households despite spending countless resources and having many opportunities to break into the market, especially after the Arab Spring, in which its reporting got a lot of attention. Even President Obama admitted to watching it, yet that just was not translating into commercial success. I don’t think the Al Jazeera America plan was a long time in development. There was a coincidence of opportunities: Current TV was looking to change hands and Al Jazeera English was not working, and so with the sale of Current TV [Al Jazeera officials] found themselves with this opportunity to get instant access to tens of millions of households.

What is the objective? Generating views and revenues? Or is there something bigger involving Qatari soft power trying to influence American hearts and minds toward the Middle East?

The underlying rationale for why Al Jazeera exists is not a commercial one. It’s not about making more money. It’s really about enhancing Qatar’s visibility, prestige, and influence. The origins of Al Jazeera are basically the Arabic channel, which had a very geopolitical rationale underlying it. When it launched in the mid-1990s, it was to project Qatari influence against Saudi Arabia’s. Saudi Arabia is the regional hegemon, so when the new emir [Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani] came to power he wanted to create a voice to project against the Saudi-dominated regional media. What he did that was novel was he gave it relative leeway and freedom to report in a way that was pretty much taboo in the region. It really projected Qatar to a role of importance in the region.

The network’s format looks to be filled with staples like a current affairs magazine and a business-oriented program fronted by well-known U.S. media figures. What’s the thought behind such a mainstream approach?

Al Jazeera has learned one of the basic lessons of globalization, which is any global product that wants to gain access to different national markets has to customize to meet the unique demands of those particular markets. Al Jazeera English was based on one signal for the whole world, and they learned how unique and exceptional the American market was in trying to get into it. There were a lot of skeptical audience members and cable companies who thought Al Jazeera English was too foreign and too different from American TV channels to really be successful. Al Jazeera America represents the realization that this channel has to be an American channel or seem like an American channel to really have a chance to reach a massive audience.

The name Al Jazeera triggers in many Americans associations that date to the 9/11 period, such as broadcasting statements from al-Qaeda leaders and quoting Taliban spokesmen. With this new format, is it going to have to oversell its coverage of the United States or will it maintain an international focus?

Al Jazeera’s strongest asset is its network of international bureaus, which far outnumber even CNN’s by a ratio of probably three or four to one. So it will have to leverage that particular asset. But it will probably cover these things from more of an American perspective, whereas Al Jazeera English was selling itself on being the voice of the Global South. It really had this multiple complex perspective on the world. I can’t see Al Jazeera America carrying forward that same perspective. But overall their focus will be on American news; that’s pretty clear from the programs that are being made available. The main flagship news program is "America Tonight," not "The World Tonight," for example.

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"One of the lines some officials are using is that Al Jazeera America is a subsidy to the American news industry given the declining profits."

Your question is also about a larger branding issue. It wasn’t just that Al Jazeera’s coverage was controversial for covering the war in Afghanistan from the perspective of Afghans on the ground and operating outside the embedded reporter system, but American leaders were quite vocal in criticizing Al Jazeera and associating it with al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden. That’s a robust association with a good portion of American public opinion. There’s a large percentage of Americans who still think of Al Jazeera as sort of terrorism TV. But there’s a significantly larger population that will be open minded if the product is good, if the product is professional.

They’re saying one of their differences with the American market will be longer sound bites, longer news packages, and serious topics, so this will be a very interesting test of the conventional wisdom of the news industry. In some ways Al Jazeera America represents faith in the American news consumer that the rest of the news industry has seemed to abandon.

Reports say that 800 journalists have been hired by Al Jazeera America so far, but do we know much about the editorial line of authority? Are decisions going to be run up through Qatari officialdom?

Most likely no, given the structure of authority in the other [Al Jazeera] channels. They have a very hands off influence on day-to-day news, day-to-day coverage. It’s hard to say generally because everything is still new: the lines of authority, the international administration and bureaucracy are not yet settled. I would be very surprised if there would be political tampering in coverage, because there’s no way to kill a journalistic operation quicker than to have too much political involvement from state officials. Qatar is pretty savvy about its use of international broadcasting to expand its abilities, and they recognize if you put too much political control over a news operation, then you are going to destroy it and ruin the whole point of doing it.

The United States itself has a Broadcasting Board of Governors with a role of firewall against government influence. It pioneered the approach of using local media figures to broadcast to foreign audiences, mainly via radio. So is Al Jazeera America the first surrogate broadcast to America that’s funded abroad?

One of the lines some officials are using is that Al Jazeera America is a subsidy to the American news industry given the declining profits, so in that way it’s almost like a surrogate for a political economy that’s failed. But in another way, you could argue it’s a surrogate for a perspective of news that simply doesn’t exist. That is, if the channel does act on its promise to tell these stories that are neglected in the news. But that would certainly be a historical curiosity to have this surrogate in media used against the United States.

On the larger scale, Al Jazeera joins Russia Today and China’s CCTV in doing this kind of broadcasting. Does this add urgency to BBG efforts to refine its strategy in broadcasting to important parts of the world?

I would think so. The BBG is competing in a much more crowded marketplace. Its competition is getting more savvy. Even the CCTV is showing greater signs of complexity--there’s a struggle internally within CCTV to be not just mouthpiece for the government. That was one of U.S. international broadcasting’s historical strengths, that it didn’t operate as a straight-up mouthpiece. But that’s less of a novelty these days, and Al Jazeera reflects that. At the same time, traditional news markets have more options, so what these channels that the United States is operating must do is find [new] ways to get the audience to even tune in in the first place.

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There’s more pressure on U.S. international broadcasting from these new emerging actors, and these countries have a lot of money that they’re willing to invest to win public opinion in the rest of the world. I don’t think the United States has the same interest in investing serious resources.

To what extent does U.S.-funded Alhurra compete with Al Jazeera in its primary Arab market?

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Al Jazeera still maintains the leading position within the Arab regional news markets and number two is Al Arabiya. When you look at the region as a whole, Alhurra is not a player in any sense, so the question is, "Are they big in some places?" I have read research that says that they are more popular in Iraq and they were also more popular during hot news events when people really want to see what the United States is saying about things. But it’s hard to actually verify that.


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