Al-Jazeera sends its brand West

Will the launch of an English-language version of the Arabic news channel give it the global media recognition it seeks?

by Conor Dignam, editor of Broadcast
Last Updated: 23 Jul 2013

A protest by angry Americans was due to begin outside an office block in Washington DC on 30 April. The protestors were due to target the offices of Al-Jazeera International (AJI), the English-language version of the Arabic news channel due to launch around the world this summer. The United American Committee (UAC), which lobbies against 'Islamic fundamentalism', doesn't believe Al-Jazeera has any business in the heart of America's democracy and is calling on all 'patriotic' Americans to cancel their subscriptions to cable companies that agree to carry the channel.

UAC supporters are threatening to keep the protest going outside Al-Jazeera's offices until it cancels plans for the channel: "It's as if Joseph Goebbels (the propaganda minister for Hitler) had set up a station in America during World War II," says Lee Kaplan, executive committee member of UAC.

For UAC, Al-Jazeera's broadcasts of videos showing Osama bin Laden, the world's most wanted man, still alive and avoiding capture, or haggard-looking western hostages, shown on camera as they desperately plead for their lives, makes the channel no better than the propaganda wing of Al-Qaeda. It's by far the most extreme reaction yet to Al-Jazeera's plans, but it's notable that so far no US cable companies have said publicly that they will carry the channel.

Across the Atlantic, Nigel Parsons, managing director of the AJI service, is in London for a week before flying back to the channel's HQ in Doha, Qatar. He has just completed a four-day trip to the US to deliver one of the most ambitious media launches ever. Parsons, a broadcast veteran with years of experience at the BBC and Associated Press, joined AJI almost two years ago. If all goes to plan - and that's a big if - Al-Jazeera's international news service will launch this summer.

The strategy is about building on Al-Jazeera's existing fame - or infamy, depending on who you're talking to. Despite being an Arab language service, it is already one of the world's best-known brands. A survey by brand consultancy Interbrand two years ago named Al-Jazeera as one of the world's five biggest brands behind Apple, Google, Starbucks and eBay, and ahead of brands such as Virgin, Nokia and the BBC.

The survey canvassed thousands of people around the world, but it's a safe bet that many of those who nominated the brand will never actually have watched the service, and if they had done wouldn't have understood it. Western media brands such as CNN and the BBC are able to launch their reach, brand and business into developing markets, but Arabic channels, backed by the deep pockets of Middle Eastern royalty, don't presume to have the kind of brand recognition that can get them a place in the global media game.

However, the audience for AJI is potentially enormous: millions of non-Arabic speaking Muslims want to hear the news from Al-Jazeera, but up to now have not been able to. AJI will change all that: it claims that at launch it will have access to between 70 million and 100 million homes around the world. In the US alone, there are estimated to be something like 7 million non-Arabic speaking Muslims.

If AJI achieves its aim, it will become the world's biggest news broadcaster, leaving CNN and BBC World trailing in its wake. Much of the weight of expectation for this launch rests on the shoulders of Parsons, who has to reconcile what some see as the conflicting notions of the Al-Jazeera brand represented by scores of western journalists and correspondents.

The new service will also be a fully high-definition (HD) channel, a powerful draw for the millions of viewers in the US and other markets that are moving to HD sets. But it's another layer of complexity in launching the channel. "We are launching an international service and there's a lot to get resolved before it is up and running," he says.

Technology may be Parsons' biggest headache at the moment, but others are quick to point to the commercial, political and editorial issues that also hang over AJI's launch. What it promises to deliver is a completely new experience for viewers - an English language news service that takes a different perspective on stories. It will not, says Parsons, be an English-language version of Al-Jazeera, but it also will not simply recreate the kind of coverage from CNN or the BBC. AJI will have 30 bureaux and somewhere between 30 and 40 correspondents. The service will broadcast from four centres - Doha, Kuala Lumpur, London and Washington. The channel will "follow the sun", says Parsons - each of the centres will take over as the rest of the world goes to bed.

Making money from the new channel isn't high up Parsons' list of concerns, and in truth Al-Jazeera's news service has never been about profit. In some respects, it's one of the world's biggest vanity publishing exercises.

The launch of the original Arabic news channel in November 1996 was bankrolled by the Emir of Qatar, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, who believed that creating an Arabic news channel based in the capital city of Doha would be a good way of building the profile of his small but immensely wealthy state.

Many of the journalists who joined the new channel had previously been employed on an ill-fated BBC Arabic service TV channel that was forced to close after the corporation fell out with the Saudi state. They brought with them a philosophy and approach to journalism that Arab news had never seen before. Politicians were challenged, conflicting views were aired, controversy was whipped up around major news events.

The powerful ruling elites of the Arab world hated it - the viewers, inevitably, loved it. The Al-Jazeera brand quickly became synonymous with the idea of confrontation and the challenging of established views. Typically, the reaction from many Arab states that have found themselves on the wrong end of an Al-Jazeera story has been to close down the news channel's bureaux.

At the last count, it has had offices closed or journalists ejected from 18 Arab countries, including Iraq, Algeria, Bahrain, Iran, Jordan, Kuwait and Sudan, and its signal has been blocked by many of the region's governments.

The Emir has been a staunch supporter of the channel, his financial input ensuring the independence of the service. In the first few years he is understood to have pumped something like $150 million into its coffers.

Claims that the channel will at some point become self-financing have not been substantiated. Overall, Al-Jazeera is understood to be making losses of at least $50 million a year, with operating costs in the region of $85 million. Its advertising revenues are not enough to cover its costs.

The service has struck deals with other broadcasters to give them support and facilities in some regions of the Middle East, and it has launched Al-Jazeera.net, a web service in English and Arabic that now claims 170 million visitors a year. In a bid to build on its brand in its local market, Al-Jazeera has moved into other television services: Al-Jazeera Sport was launched in September 2003 and Al-Jazeera Kids - a children's channel - was launched at the end of 2005.

No figures are available for revenue generated from these services, but they clearly help to offset costs. Al-Jazeera also makes significant money from the exclusive tapes of Osama bin Laden that it has aired in the past, with rival news services estimating that it makes as much as $250,000 each time it sells on the clips to other news organisations. But the price of taking the Al-Jazeera brand global will be high. The budget for the new service is put at about $85 million a year and will almost certainly be much higher than that in its launch year.

Money doesn't seem to be an object to AJI's ambitions; it plans to compete with western media brands and a stellar line-up of broadcasting and journalistic talent is being assembled for the new service. Notable signings so far include CNN's Veronica Pedrosa, who will be news anchor in Kuala Lumpur, the former BBC correspondent Rageh Omaar and Dave Marash, who has left ABC's Nightline to anchor the new service from Washington DC. The doyen of media interviewers, Sir David Frost, has also signed up, so we can expect some big-name political interviews.

Also recruited is Josh Rushing, an ex-Marine and former press aide to General Tommy Franks, who was the press liaison officer with Al-Jazeeraa in Iraq. Rushing's signing was a PR coup for the channel in its efforts to win over the US to its business. Parsons bristles at any suggestion that the Emir's money is buying up talent at inflated rates: "We are not buying people in and we are not paying more than the market rate."

The channel will be a mixture of news and scheduled programming. AJI will broadcast news features and analysis, documentaries, live debates, current affairs, business and sport. But questions have been asked about what an English language service, staffed with large numbers of western journalists, will mean for the Al-Jazeera brand. Journalists working for the Arabic service have voiced concerns about the 'westernisation' of the brand, and also grumbled about the salaries and plush offices for the new channel's staff. Rival news organisations are quick to point out the difficulties Al-Jazeera could face in reconciling the values and approach of its 'old' and 'new' channels.

"The question is: what happens to the Al-Jazeera brand once it becomes a western brand?" says Peter Horrocks, the BBC's head of TV news. "Clearly, they feel they need to give themselves the opportunity to have their brand and service seen in other markets, but what will the new Al-Jazeera be like? Is it going to be anti-war and anti-establishment in the same way as the Arabic Al-Jazeera? I have my doubts that it will be.

"It has employed a lot of staff who are UK-based and who come from British or American reporting traditions. They have a particular tradition of broadcasting and reporting, and I'd be surprised if that doesn't carry over into AJI. They have a mix of people; some are very good, some are has-beens."

To ensure the two channels work together, Wadah Khanfar, managing director of the Arabic channel, has been appointed director-general and will be responsible for both channels. But even if Al-Jazeera can get its two news operations to see eye-to-eye, can it succeed commercially? There is enormous resistance to the brand in the US, and advertising, which is one of the major sources of revenue, looks as though it is a lost cause.

No US media agencies would go on record with their comments about the AJI brand, but they delivered a blunt assessment of its chances. "The advertising and TV business went into meltdown when Janet Jackson's breast was exposed on live TV. Do you think any US clients want their brands to be on the channel of choice for Osama bin Laden? They have plenty of other options and they wouldn't thank us for suggesting it."

This is nothing new for Al-Jazeera; it has encountered the same problem in its home market. Media-buying agencies in the Middle East say the service has long been on an unofficial blacklist among many advertisers, which know that their support could lead to disputes with governments in the region.

"There's always been a lot of tension created by the type of reporting Al-Jazeera does," says Eric Mirabel, head of business development for Omnicom Media Group in Dubai. "For a long time there's been a kind of unspoken boycott of Al-Jazeera by some businesses and brands for fear of upsetting anyone by this perceived endorsement."

Almost 10 years after its launch, Al-Jazeera's key advertisers are still local Qatar companies and corporations; their investment is as much a show of pride in their country's broadcaster as a commercial decision.

Al-Jazeera Sport runs three channels and includes the French Open and Formula 1 among the events it broadcasts. Free of the association with Al-Jazeera's hard news, the sports channels bring in a more mixed group of advertisers, including Pepsi, Nissan and Emirates airline.

Back in London, Parsons argues that while there may be opposition to Al-Jazeera in the US, it is less fierce now than 18 months ago. He says any resistance or opposition to the channel is "commercial, not political", but admits that there are still "misconceptions" around the brand. He says he hopes the new service will break even in three to five years, but in truth he sounds like a man who, with the reassurance of the Emir's financial backing, is not terribly worried about advertising revenues.

Distribution of the service is another matter. All Parsons' efforts will count for nothing unless big audiences can get access to the new channel.

Parsons is upbeat, insisting that carriage by US cable networks has been agreed, but no announcements have been made yet. He insists he knew it was never going to be easy. "We never really expected to be in 20 million American homes at launch. That would be unrealistic. We have been told that America is not interested in international news - I am not sure that is true, but that is the argument we are facing."

Parsons says the key factor for AJI in the US is being on basic tier cable packages, so that everyone can access the service. "We have been offered slots on the 'ethnic' tier alongside services in Chinese, but we don't want that." He insists that on the day the service will be available across Europe, South East Asia, Asia, Africa and Latin America. It has already signed up to Sky's package in the UK, which will immediately take the channel into 8 million homes.

But what about those critics who still insist Al-Jazeera is the mouthpiece of bin Laden? "Look, we're Al-Jazeera, they're Al-Qaeda - we've both got 'Al' in our names, but that's about it. When you challenge the critics, not one of them has seen the channel or would understand it if they did.

We are not an anti-American channel." He also dismisses criticism of the channel for showing tapes of western hostages pleading for their lives.

"Every channel has shown those tapes. We don't show every tape we receive and we don't show everything that's on the tape. But if CNN or the BBC were sent these tapes, they'd show them - and they do once we've aired them."

As for the future of Al-Jazeera, Parsons is confident that the Emir will continue to find the money to pay for the service both in the Middle East and around the world. He says Al-Jazeera has no reason to apologise for the way it is funded. "We are a state-funded broadcaster, just like the BBC. The truth is it gives us a lot more freedom than some commercial broadcasters. The Emir is a good guy. I have never seen or heard of any editorial interference from him in the way the channel is run.

"Al-Jazeera has put Qatar on the map and given it a profile and association it didn't have before. If you were going to brand a country and pay ad agencies and consultants to do it, it would cost you many times more. For what it is costing, it's really a drop in the ocean."

- Anchorwoman Iman Banora at work in the Al-Jazeera newsroom in Doha, the headquarters of the Qatari satellite channel

AL-JAZEERA'S RISE TO FAME
November 1996: Al-Jazeera launches, backed by the Emir of Qatar's money,
and broadcasts for six hours a day
April 1999: Extends broadcasting to 24 hours a day after gaining
carriage on three satellites across the Middle East, North Africa and
Europe
January 2001: Al-Jazeera.net is launched; it now claims 170m visitors a
year
October 2001: Al-Jazeera is the only foreign broadcaster with reporters
in Kabul when US begins attack on the Taliban. News networks around the
world pick up Al-Jazeera footage
November 2001: Al-Jazeera's office in Kabul is bombed by US forces
March 2003: Al-Jazeera gains global recognition through reporting of war
in Iraq
April 2003: Al-Jazeera's office in Baghdad is bombed by US forces,
killing correspondent Tariq Ayoub
September 2003: Al-Jazeera Sports is launched
November 2003: Al-Jazeera Mobile is launched
2004: Al-Jazeera is the only broadcaster from inside Fallujah during the
US siege of the city. US secretary of defence Donald Rumsfeld accuses
the channel of lying in its reports
June 2005: Al-Jazeera moves to new studios and launches new on-air look.


CRITICS SAY IT HAS TONED DOWN ITS COVERAGE
June 2006: Proposed launch date of Al-Jazeera International

TOP 15 ADVERTISERS BY REVENUE 2005 (dollars M)

QTel 4.71
Qatar Petroleum 4.25
QAFAC (Qatar Fuel Additives Co) 3.55
Rasgas 2.82
QAFCO (Qatar Fertiliser Co) 2.25
Qatar Gas 2.20
Qatar National Bank 2.15
Qatar Financial Centre 1.67
QAPCO (Qatar Petrochemical Co) 1.46
Sony 1.16
LG 1.15
Lipton 1.10
Nokia 1.04
Dubai Holding 1.03
Hyundai 0.86
TOTAL ADVERTISING REVENUE 45.39


AL-JAZEERA SPORTS' TOP FIVE ADVERTISERS BY
REVENUE 2005 (dollars)

La Liga 785,137
Aspire Academy for Sports Excellence 365,700
Pepsi 203,000
Saudi-German Hospital 182,125
Red Bull 163,250
Total advertising revenue 2.75m

SOURCE: IPSOS-STAT/Statex

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