As the first Arab broadcaster to become a global brand, Al Jazeera has become synonymous with its original medium, satellite television.
So it was significant that there were no satellite boxes in sight earlier this month, when the network's top brass gathered in Dubai to launch Al Jazeera's first series of globally distributed DVDs. Instead, there were clusters of iPod-wearing teenagers and briefcase-bearing businessmen browsing the shelves of the Virgin Megastore in Mall of the Emirates, where Al Jazeera's newest offering is now on sale. Yes, Al Jazeera - broadcaster of Osama bin Laden videos, famously contrarian champion of "the opinion and the other opinion" - has entered the retail DVD business.
"It's the first time for this sort of retail, and it's part of the mission to broaden our audience reach and increase the knowledge of the brand," says Al Anstey, the director of media development. "Obviously the retail market gives us a chance to be seen in a different form that will give our existing audience the ability to choose as and when they want to view, and obviously it does give us the opportunity to reach new viewers."
In particular, the retail platform will give Al Jazeera a chance to reach viewers in the large and lucrative US market, which both the Arabic and the English channels have so far failed to crack with a national distribution deal. Although a landmark local cable deal in Washington DC last year gave Al Jazeera English the opportunity to access the airwaves of a major metropolitan area for the first time, and last year it won approval from Canadian regulators for satellite distribution there, the broadcaster still lacks the US distribution deal that would make it commercially viable.
In the past few years, the network has sought wider viewership through a popular YouTube channel and its own digital channels, but the retail option opens up another vista. Although the four DVD documentaries, produced in Arabic and English on topics ranging from the 1948 Palestinian catastrophe to the biography of the founder of Hamas, will initially be sold only at retail stores in the Middle East, the network's Dubai-based distribution partner, Viva Entertainment, plans to roll out sales in American and European stores in coming months. More importantly, the documentaries are now available through online stores, including Amazon.com.
Al Jazeera's adoption of this model of content distribution comes just as the network faces renewed resistance to its satellite programming closer to home. Last month, Arab ministers of information met in Cairo to discuss a joint proposal by the Egyptian and Saudi governments to create a regional office to regulate Arab satellite TV stations. The proposal was partly a response to a bill passed by the US House of Representatives in December calling for restrictions against broadcasters deemed hostile to the US.
But it was also a continuation of a proposal drafted by the Arab League in 2008, which stipulated that satellite TV channels "should not damage social harmony, national unity, public order or traditional values". At the time, the Al Jazeera director general Wadah Khanfar slammed the proposal, saying it "contains very general and ambiguous statements that could be used at any time to close a channel down or take it off the air".
The fears that followed that proposal have largely subsided, as the Arab League does not have legislative or executive power. Nonetheless, the media rights group Reporters Without Borders issued a warning last month against the revival of this proposal to create what it deemed a "super police" to censor Arab satellite TV. "It seems that Riyadh and Cairo hope to ride a current that supports the reaffirmation of traditional values," Reporters Without Borders said. "The main TV stations targeted by the proposal are Al Jazeera, the Hamas station Al-Aqsa TV and the Hizbollah station Al-Manar."
Dr Abdul Aziz al Horr, the director of Al Jazeera's corporate development bureau, declined to comment directly on the outcome of the latest meeting of the ministers of information last month. "I don't want to go into the conspiracy theory and the speculation of this act [by the ministers of information], but hopefully Al Jazeera and all the other channels who really stand for freedom of speech, for transferring the facts and the truth to the people, will not be harmed by these acts," he said. "We will continue our way of doing things. We stand for the opinion and the other opinion. We are an international network appealing to the world, standing for transparency and credibility."
Al Jazeera officials are hoping that more platforms for distribution will help erode some of the prejudices against the station in the US and parts of the Arab region. "The States has got a very large audience base, and it's got a lot of people who would really like to see us," Mr Anstey said. "Because of the various issues and challenges that we have faced in order to penetrate that market, we are still an unknown quantity. But the more we are known, the more that we will be welcomed."