Al-Jazeera English Looks to Build Audience Before Ads
Al-Jazeera English may be one of the only fast-growing networks that doesn't want to tell potential sponsors its growth story.
The global news network has seen its profile escalate in recent months due to its leading coverage of major events such as the Japan earthquake and uprisings in the Middle East. Web visits in April 2011 surged past 66 million -- 42% from the U.S. -- and talks to expand its limited distribution in major territories such as the U.S., U.K. and India have accelerated.
"They don't go out very hard -- they're not sending fliers out or coming around knocking on the door saying you should be advertising on Al-Jazeera," said Adrian Smith, international account director at Mediacom U.K., which tried to buy ads for Shell.
But Al Anstey, Al-Jazeera English's managing editor, based in Doha, Qatar, said that 's not the priority right now for the network, which turns five years old in November (the Arabic-language Al-Jazeera started in 1996). "It's not about revenue for us; it's about getting our journalism to as many people as possible," he said. "Yes, we do advertise on the channel, we do look for revenue opportunities. But that is not the driving force."
Al-Jazeera is , however, interested in doing a better job of telling its story to a broader U.S. audience. U.S. distribution is at around 2.4 million homes, while some key news programs such as "Witness" have broader distribution across 40 million-plus homes via deals with providers such as Dish, DirecTV and Link. Mr. Anstey said the network is talking to several ad agencies about a potential U.S. branding campaign, similar to a recent effort in the U.K. with London agency MWI.
"They would marry up with the PR team we've got globally doing the job," he said. "We've had a lot of really good pickup in the press in the United States. That definitely helps us in terms of the recognition," Mr. Anstey said.
Unlike Al-Jazeera English, Al-Jazeera's Arabic-language service has more than 20 channels -- specializing in kids, documentaries and sports as well as news -- and some of the highest-rated programs across the Middle East. And the Arabic-language channels carry more ads. In 2010, spending on Al-Jazeera's channels reached almost $650 million, but just $29 million was from Al-Jazeera English, according to data from market-research firm Ipsos. The Al-Jazeera Sports channel the company has invested heavily in lately can command high ad rates for popular sports events such as the World Cup, said Elda Choucair, general manager of Omnicom's PHD in Dubai, a center for Middle East ad sales. Al-Jazeera is also considering adding languages in addition to English and Arabic.
Derek Baine, a cable analyst for U.S. research firm SNL Kagan, said Al-Jazeera English still has an uphill battle to win U.S. dedicated carriage from cable, satellite and telco TV providers, which are already overwhelmed with too many channels. "If they get launched, I would see it more as a channel block," he said. "It's pretty unlikely they'll get a 24-hour feed in the U.S."
Mr. Anstey is equally focused on expanding Al-Jazeera English's journalistic presence, particularly as his competitors at CNN and BBC World scale back their worldwide coverage. With backing from the emir of Qatar, where Al-Jazeera is based, there is less pressure to be profitable than networks like CNN face. Of Al-Jazeera's 70 global bureaus, 35 are dedicated to English. He expects to open as many as five more in North America, in addition to others in Latin America, South Korea, Africa, Malaysia and Australia.
Mediacom's Mr. Smith cautioned that Al-Jazeera is still perceived by some audiences as having a pro-Arab stance, but several of its current distribution partners said its recent coverage of global events has been well-received by viewers. "Our affiliates have been receiving accolades from their customers for bringing this to their region," said Stephanie Misar, marketing director at MHZ Networks, the largest U.S. distributor of the 24-7 Al-Jazeera English channel. "It's a moment in the U.S. and demographics as well where folks are looking for alternatives in their news programming."