x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Al Jazeera launches US news channel

The Qatari government-backed network has reportedly poured hundreds of millions of dollars into its US news venture that it said would be the antithesis of its major American competitors.Taimur Khan reports from New York

Joie Chen, host of the new Al Jazeera America nightly news program America Tonight, at the anchor desk in the network's studio space in Washington, DC.
Joie Chen, host of the new Al Jazeera America nightly news program America Tonight, at the anchor desk in the network's studio space in Washington, DC.

NEW YORK // Al Jazeera launched its US news channel yesterday, aiming to shake up the country's media market by offering a focus on straight news, in-depth documentaries from under-reported parts of the country and fewer advertisements.

The Qatari government-backed network has reportedly poured hundreds of millions of dollars into its US news venture that it said would be the antithesis of its major American competitors.

"Viewers will see a news channel unlike the others, as our programming proves Al Jazeera America will air fact-based, unbiased and in-depth news," Ehab Al Shihabi, the channel's acting chief executive, said last week.

"There will be less opinion, less yelling and fewer celebrity sightings."

The executives behind Al Jazeera America are betting that a significant slice of Americans are hungry for a 24-hour news channel that does serious journalism and stays away from the highly partisan, opinion-driven news that dominates channels like Fox News and MSNBC.

"We're breaking in with something that we think is unique and are confident - with our guts and some research - that the American people are looking for," said Kate O'Brian, a former ABC News executive who is now AJA's president.

The new channel will have its headquarters in New York with 11 bureaus around the country, some in cities rarely covered by national news networks, such as New Orleans, Detroit and Nashville.

The goal, AJA journalists and executives have said, is to cover the America outside of New York and Washington, where a majority of the country lives, but whose lives are largely ignored by the national media.

The channel plans to extensively cover Chicago's epidemic of gang-related gun violence and the state of public education across the country. One of the first documentaries it plans to air will focus on the lives of Native Americans on reservations.

AJA will be available in 48 million TV households across the country and Americans who tune in will see a line-up of familiar faces.

Although many Americans have not heard of Al Jazeera, Susie Peerson, a 21-year-old student at New York University, said yesterday that she was looking forward to watching more objective news.

"A lot of news networks are either very conservative or very liberal and if that's the only source you have, then you won't be very informed," said Ms Peerson.

"It's especially appropriate that they are opening bureaus in under reported areas of the US. A lot of news is concentrated in big cities and we don't get to know the reality of most of America. It's important for making choices and policy - everyone has to be represented, that's the point of democracy."

The former CNN correspondent, Soledad O'Brien, will report for what AJA executives call their flagship daily show, America Tonight.

"I like that I'm able to take a look at these kinds of issues in really deep journalistic ways that I might not have elsewhere," O'Brien told the New York Daily News. "They're going to be well-told stories that focus on human beings and their struggle."

Al Jazeera bought former US vice president Al Gore's failing Current TV in January for US$500 and now has a staff of 850.

AJA executives say the unusually low amount of advertisement time - six minutes per hour compared to 15 minutes for most other channels - is a clear indicator that profits, for now, will be secondary to the quality reporting they hope will bring viewers fed up with their other news options.

No one yet knows whether enough of those Americans exist to make AJA a success.

The network faces other hurdles.

Its parent company was routinely accused by officials of the administration of former US president George WBush of airing coverage biased against its wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The largest cable providers have for years refused to carry Al Jazeera English and when the news of its acquisition of Current TV broke, the large distributor, Time Warner, dropped the channel.

AJA is in talks with Time Warner as well as other major carriers that do not air the channel.

The lack of advertisements may be due to a similar lack of interest from advertisers, some have said.

But with most major news organisations shrinking their budgets and the scope of their reporting, the success or failure of AJA's big ambitions will be closely followed.

tkhan@thenational.ae

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