Al Jazeera America at Six Months: Some New Advertisers, Few Viewers

Serious Cable News Network Is on the Right Path, Buyers Say

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Al Jazeera America is averaging less than half its predecessor's audience
Al Jazeera America is averaging less than half its predecessor's audience

Al Jazeera America is starting to earn the trust of some advertisers, but six months after its arrival the network still suffers from notably small audiences and lingering image problems in some quarters.

After going live last August with very few national brands -- most prominently Procter & Gamble's Gillette -- the Qatar-backed cable news network has begun adding commercials from movie studios, various dot com companies and travel and hotel marketers, according to media buyers and a network spokeswoman.

Executives declined to name the advertisers, however, and although Expedia ads ran on Al Jazeera America on Monday, commercial pods in daytime and prime-time alike were mainly devoted to direct-response marketers such as The Tax Doctor, Dollar Shave Club, Hip Hop Abs, and Hair Club for Men.

There were also pitches from insurance marketer SelectQuote Senior and an ad seeking people eligible to participate in a class action settlement.

Cable carriers usually sell a small amount of ad time on the channels they carry, so it wasn't clear which of the ads seen Monday in New York were actually sold by Time Warner Cable, but it's evident that major brands are still a rarity on the network.

Al Jazeera America is at least headed in the right direction as it gears up for upfront meetings with media agencies and their clients to discuss the coming year, according to Marc Morse, senior VP-national broadcast, RJ Palmer. It has delivered on its promise of nonpartisan coverage that avoid celebrity gossip and fluff while emphasizing investigative reporting and international news, Mr. Morse said.

The network's viewership is small but upscale and highly educated, Mr. Morse added.

Al Jazeera America is also starting to improve its distribution around the country and its programming. The network was added to Time Warner Cable's lineup in January, bringing its total household penetration to about 55 million.

It has been beefing up its programming with shows such as its first directly-commissioned documentary series, "Borderland," whose four-episode run begins April 6. The show follows six Americans as they retrace the footsteps of three deceased migrants who died while trying to cross from Mexico.

The network has also picked up "The System with Joe Berlinger," which will explore controversial cases of alleged injustices in the U.S. judicial system, and "Edge of Eighteen," which will follow 18 high school students living across the U.S.

For all that, however, plenty of advertisers are still staying away from Al Jazeera America.

"None of my clients are jumping on board just yet," said Steve Kalb, senior VP and director-national broadcast, Mullen. "There's a little more interest than when the network launched. It is a good, quality product … but viewership is still so small."

The channel isn't even pulling in half the total audience that predecessor Current TV managed. Al Jazeera America has averaged just 15,000 total viewers in prime-time since bowing in August, with only 5,000 viewers in the target 25-to-54-year-old demographic, according to Nielsen figures. That's low enough to be considered "scratch," or negligible, by Nielsen. For the marketers that still worry about the channel's perspective and its image in the U.S., those aren't the kind of numbers to tempt a re-examination.

Al Jazeera America CEO Ehab Al Shihabi has previously said that profits are important over time but not his primary goal initially.

Al Jazeera America has worked to reduce fears about its agenda by bringing in well-known journalists and anchors like Kate O'Brian from ABC News, veteran foreign correspondent Sheila MacVicar and former CNN anchor Soledad O'Brien, who serves as a special correspondent.

Early on, Al Jazeera America said it had made a strategic decision to offer a reduced commercial load: about 6 minutes of ads per hour, compared with 15 minutes for rivals. That strategy may be aided, of course, by relatively weak demand.

"Some advertisers are still concerned about what clients and customers will think if they advertise on the network," Mr. Morse said. "But so far news has been safe. They are just waiting for the network to prove themselves."

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