Al Jazeera America: Can Oil Money Buy Relevance for the Controversial Network?

Al Jazeera Illustration - P 2013
Illustration by: Gregoire Gicquel

Al Jazeera Illustration - P 2013

With a half-billion-dollar price tag and boldface talent like Soledad O'Brien, the network races toward its launch -- but big questions remain.

This story first appeared in the July 26 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

A month before the Aug. 20 launch of Al Jazeera America, the network still is without a president and has yet to name the anchor of its signature nightly news program, America Tonight. But the network has one thing its U.S. cable news competitors do not: benefactors with apparently bottomless resources who say they are unconcerned with turning a profit.

Backed by the Bedouin oil billionaires of Qatar, Al Jazeera Media Networks already spent more than half a billion dollars -- and possibly as much as $600 million, sources tell THR -- to purchase Current TV from Al Gore and his partners in January. And Al Jazeera America's backers are spending hundreds of millions more to launch the network, including hiring some 800 staffers and creating a 14,000-square-foot-plus headquarters at the Manhattan Center with a state-of-the-art studio featuring a 70-foot video wall for its daily newscasts.

The recent opening of seven domestic bureaus in major cities including New Orleans, Nashville and Seattle brings the total number of U.S. bureaus to 12, in addition to broadcast centers in major hubs such as Los Angeles, New York and Washington, D.C., built for the company's Arabic- and English-language services, which launched in 2006.

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"We're public-service broadcasting for the 21st century," says Paul Eedle, the British executive based in Doha, Qatar, who has temporarily decamped to New York to serve as AJAM's deputy launch director.

Asked whether Al Jazeera's parent company makes money, Eedle says flatly, "No. For nearly a century, the BBC in the U.K. has been publicly funded as a public good, and we are officially a private organization for the public good. That's what Al Jazeera is; it's a non-governmental, independent media organization, and it's there for the public good."

The network so far has recruited a mix of veteran TV correspondents including Sheila MacVicar, Soledad O'Brien and Ali Velshi. Sources say AJAM is offering "competitive" salaries for producers and anchor talent. Velshi, among the highest-profile of its hires, will host a nightly business program called Real Money and is pulling in about $1.5 million a year, according to sources.

Still, multiple key editorial positions including president-CEO and chief content officer remain unfilled. Former ABC News and CNN executive David Doss is in serious talks for the CCO post and has made two trips to Doha to meet with the company's top executives.

But the lack of clarity about who ultimately will run the day-to-day operation has given some potential hires pause, and at least one TV news veteran turned down the anchor job on America Tonight, an industry source tells THR.

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When AJAM does launch, it will have access to 49 million households via Current TV's various existing distribution deals. The transition from Current TV to Al Jazeera hasn't been entirely smooth. Time Warner Cable immediately announced that it would drop Current and decline to carry AJAM when it launches. But there are deals with Comcast, DirecTV, DISH Network, Verizon FiOS and AT&T, giving the company a foothold in the American market that it previously was unable to achieve.

Eedle stresses that AJAM is "an American channel built for an American audience." Asked whether there ever was discussion about changing the name or logo to reassure those viewers who may view AJAM as an Arab network with an Arab point of view, Eedle offers an emphatic "absolutely not."

"It's one of the best-known brands of any sort in the world, and we're very proud of it," he says. "It stands for journalism that is bold and challenging and not afraid to go after the news, but it doesn't have any agenda."

Al Jazeera's internal research indicates that about 50 million Americans "feel seriously underserved" by TV news offerings, says Eedle. But it remains to be seen whether AJAM can carve out a niche in an increasingly crowded video news landscape where profitable legacy channels have seen their ratings plateau or falter.

Al Jazeera's situation is further complicated by lingering perceptions that its coverage is anti-American and anti-Israel. On July 8, 22 staffers at Al Jazeera's Arabic-language network in Egypt resigned, citing pressure from above to slant coverage of the military coup in Egypt in favor of the Muslim Brotherhood. The Arabic-language service is a separate entity from AJAM. (A spokesperson in Doha did not respond to an e-mail inquiry about the resignations.)

"Life is going to become a lot easier when we launch because I will then have a product to point to," says Velshi. "And I can say to people, 'Regardless of what your biases may be or your perceptions of our biases are, could you just watch?'"