Altice Launching News Network i24 in U.S. in February
Altice USA boss Dexter Goei and i24 CEO Frank Melloul explain why the Tel Aviv-headquartered channel is a key part of the company's content strategy and how it is different from the shuttered Al Jazeera America.
Altice’s international news channel i24 News, started by the cable and telecom giant’s controlling shareholder Patrick Drahi in 2013 to provide a source of news and debate from "the heart of the Middle East," will launch in the U.S. next month.
It will start airing on Feb. 13, with Altice USA, the European telecom and cable company’s U.S. arm created last year via the acquisitions of Cablevision Systems and Suddenlink Communications, as its first distribution partner.
Headquartered in Tel Aviv, i24 News is available in millions of households worldwide, including in Europe, Africa, Asia and the Middle East. It airs in English, French and Arabic, and the U.S. launch will come with a team of 50 in New York and Washington, D.C., which will feed the U.S. channel and also deliver news and content from the new U.S. studios around the world. Further details of the U.S. news team will be unveiled in the coming weeks.
“In a society where everything has global implications — from politics and health care to education and security — i24 News in the U.S. will provide a new voice as it melds different points of view with everyday developments,” said Frank Melloul, CEO of i24 News. "I look forward to shaping i24 News to become the go-to-source for news and current events analysis on the issues of most importance to U.S. viewers, and am honored to provide a new model for showcasing how U.S., Middle East and international news can come together every day."
Dexter Goei, chairman and CEO of Altice USA and president of Altice, says that i24 neatly fits into the company’s broader approach to content. “Media and content are really core to the strategy of Altice,” he tells THR. “Where we have strong market share on the telecoms and distribution side, we have focused very much on producing and providing to our customers differentiated content, mostly premium differentiated content: news, sports and original content. There are people who stay away from news, but it is core to our strategy. It’s a big differentiator.”
Drahi’s personal experience led him to launch the news network. “i24 is at the heart of it a dream of Patrick’s,” Goei explains. “He went to Israel to do his aliyah and started spending more and more time there. We acquired a business called Hot Telecom in Israel, which is the second-largest telecom and the number one pay TV provider. So he spent more time there. He was there during one of the latest skirmishes with the Palestinians. When he was witnessing an aerial attack on Tel Aviv, he was watching the French news, which in his perspective was reporting in a biased way. That was the genesis of this. It was a personal desire to provide unbiased news from a different viewpoint than typically reported by many of the Western outlets, many not on the ground. He was lucky enough to run into Frank, who was the number two guy at France 24, and brought him on board. He went out and hired several hundred journalists from all over the world to move to Tel Aviv.”
Melloul recalls meeting Drahi, who was born in Morocco and who has French and Israeli citizenship, in October 2012. "He told me about his dream to launch an international news [operation] from the heart of the Middle East showing the diversity of the region with balanced news," he says. "I felt it was a very smart vision, and also very challenging vision. I was seduced by the guy, but also by the vision. That is why I resigned from the French government’s France 24 in November and took my family in December 2012 to Israel to launch i24 News.”
The U.S., as the biggest media and news media market in the world, is a natural next step, the executives say. And the U.S. is already i24’s third-biggest market in terms of online video views behind France and Israel, without any promotion so far, according to the network. While the company didn't share detailed ratings data, it says that i24 in France outperforms the international news channel France 24 in primetime.
Such factors as last year’s shutdown of Al Jazeera America and new U.S. president Donald Trump, did not affect the decision to bring i24 to the U.S., Goei says. “We don’t look at any of that. The closing of Al Jazeera in the U.S., however unfortunate it may be, we don’t view it as an opportunity to fill a gap," he says. "We really do believe there is a void for unbiased news reporting to show multiple angles of the same situation. We have been thinking about launching this for quite some time. We welcome actually a probably renewed interest in news given the elections in the U.S., and hopefully that will help us in our launch. But the timing has nothing to do with any third-party factors.”
So what can viewers expect to see on i24? “We connect global news and different perspectives with people in our [global] headquarters in Tel Aviv and our bureaus in Paris, New York and Washington,” Melloul says. “When you talk about an issue, for example terrorism, say an attack in France or Israel, you have people in all our studios talking about the common interest, how to fight against terrorists, with different points of views. This is our DNA.”
i24’s headquarters is based at the Jaffa Port in Tel Aviv, “which is already a symbol, because it is a Jewish and Arabic city,” Melloul says. “We have a big hangar with a unique newsoom with around 250 people working here with Jewish, Muslim and Christian people, and you can even find some agnostics. They produce the content together.”
Programming on i24 is focused on live news and debate shows, and the U.S. network feed will be no different. “And every night you will have news documentaries about society, security, education, women and how things are working in the Middle East,” Melloul says. “After each news documentary you will have a debate with protagonists explaining the points of view about what you just saw.”
A flagship show for the U.S. network will air every night from the U.S. headquarters in New York’s Times Square between 6 p.m. and 10 p.m. “We will have people from CNN, Fox, CBS, MSNBC, and we will also have people from local news like News 12, because we want to show that we are connected to what is going on in America on the ground,” Melloul promises.
Why does he think i24 can succeed where Al Jazeera America failed in the U.S.? “We are not doing an American version of i24 News like most media, which is the reason why they fail,” Melloul says. “Also, most of the international news channels belong to governments. France 24, the BBC belongs to the British government. i24 belongs to Patrick Drahi. We are not receiving any money from any government, and we are not receiving any money from political parties. That means we are the most independent international news channel. That is why we are totally different from Al Jazeera and others.”
Adds Goei: “I think the reason why potentially Al Jazeera America ended up closing down is they invested significant amounts of money very early without understanding that it takes time to build these kinds of platforms over time. We take a much more conservative approach, while at the same time investing heavily in the content without maybe investing in all the other bells and whistles.”
Interestingly, i24 News isn’t available on pay TV in Israel despite its Tel Aviv headquarters. “We have regulatory issues that have not allowed us to carry it in Israel for now, which relate to the fact that we own the largest pay TV provider [Hot] and can’t own a certain amount of content beyond a threshold that we are past,” Goei explains. “So we need to get a dispensation or a change in the laws.”
But Melloul is optimistic this will soon change. “There is a project now in the Israeli parliament,” he tells THR. “I am very optimistic, and I really think it is a question of weeks now to get the permission.”
In the U.S., Altice does want to get i24 broadly distributed rather than keeping it as an offer exclusive to its cable systems. “News is not about exclusivity,” Goei says. “We have started having key discussions with the largest obvious distributors. We think that there is going to be good appetite. We have good momentum.”
Given Altice's reputation for being an operator with an eye on strong financials, does i24 have to be profitable soon? ”We are quite focused on financials,” Goei acknowledges. “But this is a business, which by definition always starts off as a money-losing venture, because news is expensive and news of this type of quality is expensive. But we do have a plan over time to bring it to profitability. That is not our focus today. Our focus really is trying to get the largest audience and reach and launch this as successfully as possible and grow that over time. But from a global perspective, of course we’d like i24 to be profitable.”