Al-Jazeera's Challenge: Do We Really Want Serious Cable News?

And What About Advertisers?

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Critics often complain that cable-news networks in the U.S. lack enough "real news" and carry a surplus of opinion and fluff. Now enters Al-Jazeera and its tendency toward serious reporting. But will viewers prove the critics right? And what about advertisers?

Al-Jazeera's new presence in the U.S., enabled by its pact to take over Current TV and most of its distribution deals with cable and satellite companies, could finally prove the notion that U.S. audiences want meatier cable news. "This is the single most important game-changer in the news industry," said Cathy Rasenberger, who helped introduce Al-Jazeera English in 2006 and has worked with the network on and off for the past three years.

The events of the Arab Spring already engendered a huge rise in interest for Al-Jazeera English, Ms. Rasenberger said. "Other news organizations didn't have feet on the ground," she said. "Al-Jazeera has deep resources to cover international news that domestic news organizations don't have."

Al-Jazeera America, the working name for the revamped channel, is taking a hard stance on its mission after the Current acquisition puts it in 40 million homes, up from 5 million for Al-Jazeera English now. It will predominantly report on U.S. news and events but will devote about 40% of its coverage to global issues, according to a spokesman for the company. There will be no entertainment news or "pictures of cats," he said.

Al-Jazeera, which is funded by the government of Qatar, isn't the only news provider betting that there's a gap in TV news here. BBC World News inked a new distribution deal with Time Warner Cable last month that will make it available in more than 25 million U.S. homes, nearly doubling its reach in The States.

"We are finding that the U.S., which is one of the most-important markets, is becoming a more fruitful territory for us," said Jim Egan, COO of BBC Global News. "This is due to what's taking place in the country as well as a growing interest among some, though not all audiences, in world events." gets 22 million unique visitors in the U.S. per month, a 10% jump from the year prior, according to the network. Al-Jazeera, for its part, notes that 40% of those streaming Al-Jazeera English for free on the web are located in the U.S.

The demand, according to both companies, comes from an audience that still wants straight, non-partisan news. "We take a deliberate, global perspective on news events and don't have a slant toward one nation or worldview," Mr. Egan said.

But even the BBC can't match Al-Jazeera's funding. "If you want to be credible in international news it comes at cost," Mr. Egan said. "You need to afford to maintain a high caliber of international journalists. We can't spend $500 million acquiring an Al Gore startup network."

And the big three in U.S. cable news -- Fox News, MSNBC and CNN -- aren't funding global reporting on the scale of either Al-Jazeera or the BBC. CNN, which enjoys a large international presence compared with its domestic rivals, has 33 international news bureaus. Al-Jazeera and the BBC each have more than 70.

But it may be telling that Al-Jazeera English has had a hard time convincing cable and satellite operators to carry the channel. Much of that had to do with the perception that the network was sympathizing with extremists. Al-Jazeera has been criticized in the U.S. for airing videos and messages from al Qaeda members and sympathizers.

"When it first launched, there was a miscommunication about what Al-Jazeera English was, and the political environment in the U.S. at the time was hostile," Ms. Rasenberger said. Al-Jazeera English is separate from the Arabic network, not a translation, she said.

While antipathy toward the brand seems to have abated, there are still Facebook comments referring to Al-Jazeera English as "terrorist sympathizers."

"This perception will be difficult to overcome," said Adam Hanft, CEO of marketing firm Hanft Projects. "Even though it's worked hard to earn journalistic integrity, winning numerous awards, it doesn't matter perceptually. The name alone is even too foreign for most American viewers."

This lingering stigma could drive away viewers, distributors and advertisers, said Brad Adgate, senior VP-research at Horizon Media. The bulk of advertisers at the onset will comprise direct-response marketers as a result, he said.

Ethan Heftman, senior VP-West Coast buying at Initiative , said advertisers will wait and see to determine whether Al-Jazeera America can take advantage of its footprint, something Current TV failed to do.

It's unlikely that the other cable-news channels will see much of an impact, Mr. Heftman predicted. "Even with CNN's ratings decline, they still blow away Current TV, and I suspect Al-Jazeera won't be able to touch them either," he said.

The struggle for Al-Jazeera English distribution may have had more to do with lack of viewer interest than its brand image, Mr. Heftman suggested. "Most people would scratch their heads if you asked them about Al-Jazeera," he said.

It may be that U.S. audiences actually care most about their favorite anchors and hosts. "We hear people say that they want straight, factual news, but they have no compulsion to watch this type of news coverage on a regular basis," one TV-news veteran said. "Strong personalities are still what connect viewers."

The ratings seem to back that up. Fox News Channel once again led viewership in 2012, its 11th year atop rivals MSNBC and CNN. Fox News, which is known for its personalities such as Bill O'Reilly and Sean Hannity, averaged 2.1 million viewers in prime time, an 11% increase from 2011. MSNBC, which has also been building up names such as Rachel Maddow, pulled in 911,000 viewers, an 18% jump from the year prior.

CNN trailed in third place, posting a 3% drop in viewership to 689,000. The network has brought in Jeff Zucker as its new president to help revamp the network, which does well when compelling news erupts but struggles to keep viewers engaged during slow news cycles. While Mr. Zucker has been adamant about remaining non-partisan, he has expressed interest in different forms of news, saying at the time of his appointment that "news is more than politics and war."

Time Warner Cable dropped Current TV after news of the Al-Jazeera deal emerged and media experts and buyers worry other pay-TV distributors could follow. Al-Jazeera English said it does not expect any of the other distributors carrying Current, which include DirecTV and Dish Network, to drop the channel. Dish and DirecTV declined to comment.

Improved international coverage will boost demand among viewers, Ms. Rasenberger said.

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