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At 3 p.m. Tuesday, a new cable news competitor is set to enter the crowded television media landscape. Al Jazeera America, which will replace Current TV on the channel guide, is entering the field backed by deep-pocketed owners and boasting waves of high-profile reporter and anchor hires.
“We are not just ready, we are more than ready,” said interim CEO Ehab Al Shihabi during a recent call with reporters, adding: “We know that Americans want in-depth coverage of the news that matters to them.”
But the network faces questions about how large of an audience it will attract and how it can carve out a niche in a field that includes CNN, MSNBC and Fox News. Below is a primer on the newly launched cable news competitor.
1. Who owns Al Jazeera America
AJAM is part of the global Doha-based news organization financed by the royal family of Qatar. Last July, Emir Sheikh Hamad Bin Khalifa Al Thani handed over power to his son Sheikh Tamim Bin Hamad Al Thani, 33. Qatar has only 1.9 million people but is the world’s richest country, with stakes in Barclays and Volkswagen. The emirate has supported uprisings in Syria and Libya and, according to Bloomberg, has lent $8 billion to Egypt since the ouster of president Hosni Mubarak. However, in July, close to two dozen employees at the company’s network in Egypt resigned over what they characterized as the network’s biased coverage of the Muslim Brotherhood.
2. Where it’s available — and not available
In the United States, AJAM is available in about 49 million of more than 100 million cable homes via Comcast DISH Network, DirecTV, FiOS and AT&T. It is not available on Time Warner Cable, which has more than two million customers in New York and Los Angeles, the No. 1 and No. 2 TV markets in the country. Time Warner Cable publicly dropped Current — the network co-founded by former vice president Al Gore — when AJAM’s parent company bought it for more than $500 million. Al Jazeera executives are currently in negotiations to regain carriage on Time Warner Cable systems, but those negotiations are likely taking a backseat to the operator’s heated disagreement with CBS.
3. What type of programming will be offered
The network boasts that 14 hours of live content will air daily. “We know people want to get their news whenever they have the opportunity to tune in, and we will be there,” said AJAM president Kate O’Brian in a call with reporters last week. The exec joined the network in July after more than two decades with ABC News.
The programming slate appears weighted toward policy-driven topics. The network’s Sunday lineup, for example, includes Fault Lines, a half-hour documentary series airing at 7 p.m. ET that will look at topics such as “gang violence in California, abuse of the elderly and the state of the U.S. housing market.” The show is followed by Tech Know, which investigates notable scientific findings.
Also, there will only be six minutes of commercials per hour at launch.
4. Who will be delivering the news
There will be plenty of familiar faces. Nearly 850 employees have been hired to staff 12 newly opened U.S. bureaus. AJAM’s flagship show, America Tonight, is billed as an hourlong current affairs newsmagazine hosted by CNN veteran Joie Chen. CNN’s Starting Point anchor, Soledad O’Brien, will be a special correspondent for the show and will produce documentaries for the network.
Other weeknight shows include Consider This, a talk show hosted by former ABC News correspondent Antonio Mora, and Real Money, anchored by former CNN chief business correspondent Ali Velshi. There will also be the social media-driven The Stream, co-hosted by Lisa Fletcher, formerly of ABC News, and Wajahat Ali, a playwright and essayist who appeared on the Al Jazeera English version of the show.
The documentary unit will be headed by Kathy Davidov, formerly vp production at National Geographic Television. The channel also boasts an investigative team headed by journalist Ed Pound, recently a staff correspondent at National Journal. The headquarters and broadcast center of AJAM is on 34th Street and 8th Avenue in Manhattan.
5. How the cable network will differentiate itself
Breaking news, in-depth investigative reporting and little celebrity filler is being promised. But the network has formidable resources overseas, bolstered by Al Jazeera English and Al Jazeera Arabic. “There are 70 bureaus overseas in addition to the 12 in the U.S.,” said O’Brian in the conference call. “It gives us an amazing competitive advantage to be able deploy resources into places that our competitors really don’t have the ability to do so as easily.”
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