TV Upfront

Al Jazeera takes on a daunting PR challenge: the U.S.

By Published on .

For every fledgling cable network, challenges abound. Securing a slot on stuffed-to-the-gills premium tiers looms as a near impossibility, as does convincing marketers that you'll be able to attract the demographically desirable eyeballs fleeing the living room in record numbers.

But Al Jazeera International faces yet a third hurdle.

Originally slated to launch in May but now likely later in the year, Al Jazeera International must add to that list persuading viewers, advertisers, cable and satellite operators, and, well, anybody else who'll listen that it's not "the terrorist network."

It's a heady challenge for the new English-language offspring of the Mideast-based Al Jazeera news channel-a challenge that Commercial Director Lindsey Oliver embraces, though she believes the PR angle has been vastly overblown.

"In some parts of the world, no question there are misperceptions about Al Jazeera International," she says. "But once you sit down with people and explain what it is and what it's not, the interest is definitely there."

However, that interest hasn't yet generated a U.S. cable outlet for Al Jazeera International. Media reports late last month said that the satellite-based Dish Network was considering signing on.

What Al Jazeera International says it is: a 24-hour, English-language current affairs channel headquartered in Doha, Qatar, with broadcasting centers in Kuala Lumpur, London and Washington. High-profile personalities already on board include former "Nightline" correspondent Dave Marash (a D.C.-based news anchor) and Sir David Frost (host of the "Frost Over the World" interview show). Al Jazeera International will broadcast exclusively in high-definition, and Ms. Oliver reports she has "promised [her] bosses that we'll launch to 40 million households" among all the countries it reaches.

One wonders if the network's detractors have already inflicted substantial damage. Eight media buying agencies contacted for this article declined to discuss the network's chances of success. "It's such a sensitive topic that we'd like to be in the 'politely declined comment' group," says a spokesman at one agency. "We don't have a perspective to add for this story," offers another.

But Carl "Bud" Carey, associate professor at Syracuse University's S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications, minces few words: "They unfortunately come to the table with a badly perceived reputation. Even the better-known products have difficulty getting on cable systems. Anything with built-in problems, nobody will be rushing to add it."
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