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America could be Al Jazeera’s final frontier

Al Jazeera launched an US-only channel after failing to penetrate the market with its existing English-language offering. Flickr/Paul Keller

America could be Al Jazeera’s final frontier

From its humble beginnings in the tiny middle eastern state of Qatar, Al Jazeera has been a genuine trailblazer, and can be partially credited with kickstarting a news and media revolution in the Arab world.

But the network’s attempts to expand to the US market have not been without difficulties. Opposition to Al Jazeera during wars in Iraq and Afghanistan came from the highest levels of government, and now Al Jazeera America must contend with a reputation that formed in the minds of many during those heated post-9/11 years.

Launched in 1996 from a ramshackle compound in the sleepy capital of Doha with then-Emir Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani as a wealthy benefactor, the channel rapidly expanded its satellite footprint to most of the Middle East and established itself as a major voice in the Arab world.

The launch of Al Jazeera English (AJE) in 2006 marked its first non-Arabic news venture, and AJE was joined in 2011 by the lesser-known Al Jazeera Balkans. This year, Al Jazeera announced plans for UK and French channels (in addition to Al Jazeera Turk). (There has also been some media speculation that Al Jazeera is considering an Australian sports channel.)

But its most anticipated franchise has been Al Jazeera America (AJAM).

Al Jazeera had previously worked hard to crack the US market, but with little success. After years of private and public lobbying (including a prominent “Demand Al Jazeera” campaign in the wake of the Egyptian Revolution of 2011), and in the face of strident ideological and political opposition, AJE managed only a few small pockets of cable carriage across the USA.

Then in January this year, Al Jazeera dropped a bombshell: it had purchased Al Gore’s Current TV channel for a reported $US500 million, instantly gaining access to an estimated 50-60 million homes.

Within hours of the announcement of the Al Jazeera deal, Time Warner Cable (reaching around 10 million homes) removed Current from its line-up, denying the charge that its decision was politically motivated.

(After evaluating “whether it makes sense” to carry AJAM, Time Warner last week decided to re-add the channel.)

Not so welcome after all: protestors in Golden, Colorado protest the arrival of an Al Jazeera news crew. Flickr/Andrew J Ferguson

Americans were quick to parody their latest news channel on Twitter with the hashtag #AlJazeeraAmericaTVShows eliciting suggestions like “Sharia Law & Order”, “I Dream of Jihad”, “How I Met Your Camel”, and “Arresting Development”.

Al Jazeera America took shape with amazing speed – the Current TV deal was announced in January and AJAM went to air only seven months later.

In that time, dozens of AJE staff flown in from Doha, along with local executives, built a newsroom/studio in New York City, opened multiple new bureaus around the country, recruited hundreds of staff (from many thousands of applications), and fleshed out a 24-hour broadcast schedule of news bulletins and special programs.

Throughout this process there was public discussion and fierce internal debate over many editorial issues, but one in particular: how American should the American arm of Al Jazeera be?

Marwan Bishara, host of AJE’s Empire and the channel’s senior political analyst, emailed network leadership in July, expressing concern about attempts to build a “firewall” between the new channel and its sisters in Doha. This email along with other reporting at the time suggested that AJAM was engaged in a delicate balancing act between embracing the Al Jazeera legacy and distancing itself to counter lingering sentiments about the network’s “anti-Americanism”.

Couldn’t be more American: an Al Jazeera reporter gets ready to broadcast from the Buffalo Rose Saloon. Flickr/Andrew J Ferguson

After several delays to the ambitious launch date, AJAM went to air on August 20. In reviewing the new channel’s first hours, Mary McNamara in the Los Angeles Times declared that AJAM had “chutzpah” for opening with a swipe at US news culture before setting out its mission as an attempt to “out-America everyone”.

At a stylistic level, she also mentioned AJAM’s “muted color scheme, unexciting camera work and sophomoric graphics” in contrast to established US cable news outlets with their audiovisual gimmicks and outsize production. In some ways these design elements which seek to foreground content over production, borrowed as they are from AJE, may be more central to the channel’s success or failure than editorial considerations.

Only two months after launch it’s impossible to draw any conclusions about AJAM’s prospects.

Launch ratings were so low that in some cases they failed to meet the metrics’ “accuracy threshold” – but any new channel, even one without AJAM’s Islamic-sounding moniker, is going to struggle to gain viewers. Especially so in an increasingly fragmented media market and when new cable channels are assigned numbers at the wrong end of the dial where chance discovery is unlikely.

The original Al Jazeera channel has been phenomenally successful in the Middle East, and AJE has built on that success around the world. Al Jazeera America is the network’s attempt to crack the last major withholding Western market, and it may turn out to be the toughest challenge it has taken on.

18 days: Al Jazeera English and the Egyptian Revolution by Scott Bridges is out through Editia on November 30th.