Eager for ads

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If the U.S. government does decide to spread its anti-terrorism message by buying airtime on Al Jazeera, the pan-Arab satellite news channel will readily accept the ads.

"Not only will we take advertising from the U.S. government, it will be an honor for us," said Foad Tawil, managing director for advertising at Gulf Space International, the Dubai-based company that sells Al Jazeera's airtime. "We're eager to see it [happen]."

A week ago Charlotte Beers, the former chairman of WPP Group's J. Walter Thompson Co. recently confirmed as undersecretary of state for public diplomacy, said that if the state department had to buy time on Al Jazeera to get out the U.S. message, "I would certainly consider it" (AA, Oct. 15).

The U.S. government would be in the company of advertisers commonly seen on U.S. channels. Al Jazeera advertisers include General Motors Corp., Nissan Motor Co. and Mitsubishi. Procter & Gamble Co. buys an occasional ad for Head & Shoulders shampoo.

Ironically, Osama bin Laden's favored TV venue is shunned by Arab advertisers. As the Middle East's leading news network, five-year-old Al Jazeera has gained a controversial reputation for annoying local Arab governments and different political factions with its comparatively independent reporting and coverage. But in a region notorious for biased news reports and heavy-handed propaganda on state-owned TV channels, Al Jazeera pays a price for its reputation as the CNN of the Arab world.

Mr. Tawil said that Al Jazeera generated $15 million in ad revenue last year, and it's still in the red. The network expects to pull in a similar amount this year. That's a big jump from $3.3 million in 1998 but just a fraction of the $40 million to $45 million that Mr. Tawil thinks Al Jazeera would pull in if the channel weren't boycotted by local Arab marketers. Its only local advertiser is, unsurprisingly, Qatar's Doha Bank. Al Jazeera's main backer is the British-educated Emir of Qatar, Sheik Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, who started and funded the satellite network in 1986 but intended it to become self-financing by the close of 2001. That seems unlikely now, although this year's revenue will be boosted by sales of Al Jazeera's footage to U.S. and international TV networks.

"It's a question of politics," Mr. Tawil said. "We're not liked by everyone, especially when it comes to freedom of speech. There's pressure [on Arab advertisers] from the local governments." He said Al Jazeera will accept advertising from anyone except Israeli companies, fearing an Arab backlash.

Today, Al Jazeera is the Middle East's most-watched news network and the second most-viewed pan-Arab TV service after Lebanon's general entertainment network LBC Sat, media directors agree. Ratings are difficult to measure, with many of the Middle East's often illegal satellite dishes uncounted. In Al Jazeera's early days, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Jordan all blocked transmission at different times, but eager viewers turned to buying videos of the network's news programs. Rival Middle East satellite channels take in far more ad revenue; back in 1998, LBC Sat's ad revenue topped $93 million, followed by the Middle East Broadcasting Centre with $76 million, according to the Pan Arab Research Centre in Dubai. "I tend to believe that Al Jazeera's leadership is somehow driven by its controversial approach to the news material," said Tarek Ayntrazi, Dubai-based managing director, Middle East and North Africa, at Starcom MediaVest, part of Bcom3 Group. "The heated debates on its political talk shows and the significant amount of newspaper articles that attack the network reflect how popular the station has become."

Al Jazeera's advertisers are buying a relatively high-income male audience, although that demographic is broadening as more people turn to the channel for the latest news.

"We mainly recommend it for [upscale] products, such as financial services, cars and expensive pens and watches," said Roy Haddad, Beirut-based CEO of TMI/J. Walter Thompson, Middle East and North Africa.

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