Al Jazeera America One Year Later: Is Gaza the Turning Point?
As Al Jazeera America completes its first year on TV, it has some good news to celebrate. Prime-time audiences drawn to the network's coverage of the Gaza conflict have leapt from an average of 15,000 in the week ending July 6 to 23,000 in the week ending Aug. 3. It has been promoting its reporting with ads on major TV networks including rivals CNN, Fox News and MSNBC.
That follows three straight quarters of household and audience growth, not to mention its strongest month yet for digital traffic in July and a growing body of awards for quality journalism, according to the network. "We have accomplished a lot," Al Jazeera America CEO Ehab Al Shihabi told staff in a one-year-anniversary memo on Wednesday.
But twelve months into a mission to bring the U.S. "fact-based, in-depth coverage" of domestic and foreign news "without the punditry, opinion and 'infotainment' seen elsewhere," as Mr. Al Shihabi's memo put it, the network still works in margins of the program guide, little-seen by viewers and rarely bought by advertisers. And like other cable news networks that see audiences wax and wane as big news comes and goes, the big question is how much of its recent viewership bump Al Jazeera America can keep after open hostilities in Gaza subside.
Since debuting last August, the network has averaged just 16,000 viewers in prime-time, according to Nielsen, roughly half the audience that watched its obscure predecessor, Current TV, and nothing like CNN's average of 459,000 in the second quarter. Advertisers on the network include Expedia, Zillow and AIG, but those numbers aren't enough to get most big brand marketers to reconsider their hesitance.
"Right now it's not worth taking the risk," said Billie Gold, VP-director of buying and programming research at Carat, the media buying agency.
An Al Jazeera America spokeswoman declined to make executives available for phone interviews, but conversations with current and former employees who asked not to be identified portray a network that has moved slowly to build its brand, counter notions about its political perspective or offer a big on-air personality that could draw ratings.
"There's a negative perception among buyers and clients, unfairly or not," a media buyer said. "They need to develop relationships in the community. There are so many networks out there to evaluate, they have to go out and sell themselves."
Executives have sometimes ignored advice given by consultants and outside agencies hired to help with the launch of the network, the former employees said. It pulled out of the Television Critics Association press tour last summer at the last second, for example, and again declined to take questions at the association's winter event. It finally showed up for a Q&A session at the 2014 summer press tour last month.
Former employees also said many daily tasks were regularly vetted through headquarters in Doha, Qatar, making it difficult to get things accomplished quickly.
Al Jazeera America described its pace as intentional.
"We took a very measured move into the ad community at launch and now that we have increasing distribution and proof of our upscale, educated, influential audience, we can move more aggressively to clients seeking that consumer," Dawn Bridges, a spokeswoman for the company, said in an email.
Daily dealings with Doha involve assigning and deploying reporters from more than 80 bureaus around the world, but denied any micromanagement from Qatar, Ms. Bridges said.
The ad sales team met with over 200 agency groups in 2013 in an effort to change the largely negative views held by agencies, Exec VP-Ad Sales Ken Ripley said in an email provided by Ms. Bridges. It waited until the first quarter of this year to start trying in earnest to strike deals, he added, so advertisers could see ratings and make an informed decision.
One agency said Al Jazeera visited again this spring, but several media buyers said they have not heard from the network since those initial meetings in 2013. "We met initially late last summer, but I don't feel like they have been out with a strong enough message leading into this year's upfront," echoed Stacey Shepatin, exec VP-director of national broadcast, Hill Holiday. "I don't think they have much of a story to tell."
A second media buyer from a top agency said Al Jazeera America has not been in to the office or called to meet with anyone since the first meeting last year, and was surprised not to hear from them during the recent upfront market, where networks look to sell commercial time in advance.
Mr. Ripley said the company does not need to participate in the upfront because it deliberately runs fewer commercials than its rivals and can complete all of its deals in the so-called scatter market closer to air date.
While Al Jazeera America has been mindful to position itself as an American network, hiring familiar personalities such as former CNN anchors Soledad O'Brien and Ali Velshi, former employees say the company hasn't done much to actually understand how to win in American media. One former staffer said the network intentionally steered away from trying to poach bigger names, not wanting its anchors to outshine its serious news coverage.
Ms. Bridges called that inaccurate, saying Al Jazeera America President Kate O'Brian has had regular discussions with "major personalities" and their representatives.
The company could be gearing up for a new push. In his email to employees, Mr. Al Shihabi said developing the advertising business is one of the network's goals in year two. The network is also in the midst of a media agency review, perhaps suggesting new ambitions or goals in the year ahead.
Other plans include launching a TV Everywhere platform, growing the network's distribution and extending brand awareness.
And Al Jazeera America is exploring using "programmatic" automated ad sales to let buyers secure inventory using so-called demand-side platforms, according to Ms. Bridges.
"We are committed to being a leader in the programmatic TV sales space and have deals in place with certain DSP partners," she said. "As a new network, we are a business that is not beholden to a legacy business model for advertising that is 30 years old and thus can be aggressive and agile in the programmatic space."
But the biggest challenge remains the lingering connotations among American viewers associated with the brand and its relationship with Qatar, which spent $500 million in January 2013 to acquire Current TV.
Al Jazeera America is now in 60 million homes, up from 40 million at launch, and carried on systems including Comcast, Time Warner Cable and DirecTV. It says it has a high composition of affluent, educated and professional viewers that skew younger than rivals. But when breaking down the total audience into these demographics, the number becomes miniscule. "It might be more upscale, but it is such a small audience it doesn't even matter," said Ms. Gold, the Carat executive.
Mr. Al Shihabi addressed the ratings situation in his email to employees on Wednesday.
"Let's put things in perspective," he wrote. "Other cable news networks have been on television for decades -- we're a year old. We're still growing our brand awareness as well as our distribution, which is a little more than half of all U.S. cable homes. But ratings only tell part of the story about Aljazeera America. Aljazeera America is a unique media company in our mission, values and the kind of impact we deliver. We're proud to be a trendsetter and trailblazer delivering a new product that looks beyond parochial borders, impacts an ethnically diverse population and helps re-balance the global media. We're also proud of our many talented and committed journalists, whose deep expertise and reporting experience helped us win multiple industry awards, including two 2013 Peabody Awards."
Al Jazeera America's in-depth reporting both internationally and domestically has been highly praised by the media industry. The network remained on the scene following the massive chemical leak in West Virginia that contaminated the water supply long after other news networks have moved on. And when the Malaysian plane was shot down over Ukraine, Mr. Al Shihabi said the network had a reporter there before any other U.S. channel
But it doesn't help that Al Jazeera America entered the U.S. market at a time when the cable news industry is grappling with declining audiences who are consuming news via nontraditional outlets.
The availability of headline news instantaneously on social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter has significantly depreciated the need to turn on the evening news. In the second quarter, CNN's total prime-time audience plunged 31%, Fox News was down 16% and MSNBC was off 1%.
And perhaps any fledgling channel can expect growing pains. Before going on the air, Al Jazeera America hired about 850 staffers and opened 12 news bureaus in the U.S. in eight short months. Over the past year it has evaluated its programming and where to best allocate resources, laying off some of those staffers in the spring. The company also decided to shed its sports unit and scale back "The Stream" from a daily show to a weekly program.
Mr. Al Shihabi said the network has been reaching out to the business community and diversity groups through "targeted meetings" and multiple ad campaigns to attract new viewers.
But Mohammed el-Nawawy, a professor of communications at Queens University of Charlotte who has written about Al Jazeera, said ultimately the network will need a big domestic scoop to get recognized.
"At some point you need to appeal to the average American for this to have real shot at success," he said. "Right now viewership is limited to the elite, academics, the coasts."