Go West

The most successful Arab news network to date, Aljazeera, will broadcast in English by the end of the year. What challenges will it face?

  • E-Mail
By  Elizabeth Drachman Published  January 9, 2005

|~||~||~|Aljazeera, the most watched and controversial TV network in the Arab world, will launch its long-awaited English-language counterpart by the end of this year. Given the Arabic channel’s track record of getting thrown out of countries, airing uncut war footage and speaking out against oppressive governments, the English channel is sure to lure millions of viewers curious to see if it lives up to its Arabic counterpart. Established in 1996 in the Gulf nation of Qatar, Aljazeera has some 40 million viewers, including more than 200,000 in the United States. It is criticised in the West as being vitriolic and inflammatory against America and Israel, and equally condemned in the Middle East as being pro-Western. Saudi Arabia's Interior Minister, Prince Nayif, once accused it of serving up “poison on a golden platter.” The list of countries where Aljazeera is banned reads like a who’s who of Arab regimes: Sudan, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, Kuwait and Bahrain. The much-scrutinised network was even the star of a documentary film about the US-led invasion of Iraq, “Control Room.” And if the frenzied, positive reaction to the movie last month at the Dubai International Film Festival is any indication, English speakers will tune in to the new channel in droves. Aljazeera observers agree: “I think it is a good idea to give the Western audience in general, and the American audience in particular, an opportunity to watch an English version of a network that is presenting a different perspective from the one they are getting from their own media," says Dr. Mohammed El-Nawawy, journalism professor and co-author of “Aljazeera: How the Free Arab News Network Scooped the World and Changed the Middle East.” “This is especially important in the case of Aljazeera, which has always been associated in some American circles, such as right-wing conservative media, with terrorism and Bin Laden,” he adds. The book's co-author, professor Adel Talaat Farag, says the English channel may only lure liberal Westerners at first. “At this time, Aljazeera will likely be more popular in Europe and among liberal leaning Americans. Fundamentally, the first wave of Western viewers will likely tune in to satisfy their curiosity about a station they have only heard about. The station’s popularity will depend on its ability to go beyond this initial curiosity and create regular viewership,” says Farag. Two main events made Aljazeera a household name — when it aired the tapes of Osama Bin Laden praising the 9/11 terror attacks, and the fact that it was the only media outfit covering the early part of the US offensive that later toppled the Taliban in Afghanistan. Since then, other events have propelled its name into the headlines, such as when its offices were bombed by US forces, once in Kabul and once in Baghdad. The latter caused the death of cameraman Tarek Ayyoub on April 3, 2003. The bombings caused many industry observers, including France-based Reporters Without Borders, to condemn the United States and rally in defence of Aljazeera. Heading up the team that will eventually comprise Aljazeera International is British national Nigel Parsons, who most recently worked at Associated Press Television News (APTN). In addition to Parsons, another British national, Steve Clark, formerly of SkyNews and Middle East Broadcasting Centre (MBC), will be the network’s director of news. According to Parsons, the English Aljazeera will not simply be a re-hash of the Arabic offering. Rather, it will be a channel in and of itself, with more than just an Arab perspective. “We will be a stand-alone operation with our own agenda, but of course, we would expect to cooperate with the Arabic channel and to share resources where appropriate for both sides,” he says. More to the point, Aljazeera International intends to be a global news alternative to networks such as CNN and BBC, which have both in recent years shed not only bureaus and employees, but have been criticised by industry observers — CNN and Fox News in particular — for one-sided reporting. “Aljazeera International will be a global English-language news and current affairs channel. It will not just be focused on Middle East or Islamic issues, nor will it be a translation of the Arabic channel, but it will seek to cover issues relevant to people across the world,” says Parsons. “While it will broadcast in the English language, it is not based in a primarily English-speaking country and thus will not have an Anglo-centric agenda. It will aim to put greater emphasis on news and events affecting the developing world. Apart from news, we also intend to have discussion programmes, documentaries, and to broadcast human interest feature items,” he adds. The English channel will broadcast from four bureaus — in Qatar, Malaysia, Washington, DC, and London. The bureaus will eventually be staffed by 300 full-time employees, says Parsons, who has been busy recruiting those staff members. Aljazeera’s Arabic channel employs about 100 journalists. Parsons, who left APTN to “seek new challenges,” says he believes viewers will choose Aljazeera International because it will offer “balanced and accurate” reporting. He does not think it is the English channel’s responsibility to win over critics of the Arabic channel. “It is possible that some people’s opinions of Aljazeera will change with the launch of the English channel. The Arabic channel has been the subject of many misconceptions regarding its content, particularly from non-Arabic speakers who are unable to understand the content,” explains Parsons. “We would hope that viewers of the English channel will see we are offering a balanced and accurate service in the best traditions of even-handed journalism.” Content issues aside, Parsons’ major challenge will be money. Aljazeera hasn’t turned a profit since its inception in 1996. It was launched with US$150 million of Qatari government money, and was supposed to be self-sufficient by 2001. That never happened, and the network has been funded by the government to the tune of US$30 million a year ever since, according to manager of communications, Jihad Ali Ballout. A dedicated budget for the English channel has not been set yet, says Parsons. There are many reasons for Aljazeera’s lack of advertising revenue that are not necessarily related to the network’s content. Advertising flourishes when economies do well and when there is a vibrant, competitive private sector. Not only has Aljazeera been affected by the global downturn, but the private sector in the Middle East, still in its infancy, is just now learning the benefits of marketing. Aljazeera does have other avenues of revenue, including cable subscription fees, the re-sale of existing footage, broadcasting deals with other companies and the sale of documentaries. According to Russian news agency Pravda, Aljazeera received US$20,000 per minute for Bin Laden’s post-9/11 speech. But the network as a whole is still not profitable. According to Khalil Byrd’s research paper ‘Sustaining a Free Press in the Middle East,’ another reason why Aljazeera has had problems making money is because the advertising agencies that control the majority of the money in the region are owned by businessmen in Saudi Arabia, one of the countries where Aljazeera is banned. The end result is that in 2000, “Aljazeera’s advertising revenue was just US$15 million despite its status as the region’s most widely watched news programme. Meanwhile, the [Saudi-owned] Middle East Broadcasting Centre earned US$76 million in advertising revenue in 1998,” reads Byrd's paper. Parsons is defensive of Aljazeera’s financial track record, claiming, “All news channels are what you might call ‘financial failures.’ BskyB news in the UK, for example, was not launched to make money, but because it was part of the licence requirement. I understand that as a stand-alone it still loses money, but BskyB overall makes money — especially from its sports channels,” he says. “In that sense, you have to see us as part of a five-channel network. By the time we go on air, Aljazeera will have a sports channel [already on air], a children’s channel and a documentary channel. “If the English channel can get anywhere close to replicating the kind of phenomenal success worldwide as regards audience share that the Arabic channel enjoys in the Middle East, then we would expect to generate substantial advertising revenue,” he adds. Author El-Nawawy also defends Aljazeera’s government support by pointing out that the BBC is government-funded and that Aljazeera didn’t have many other options. “There was no other way for Aljazeera to survive financially when advertisers are discouraged by their governments from placing adverts on a network that challenges them,” he says. Parsons’ experience should help him take the well-known brand of Aljazeera to the next level. The managing director has 30 years in the business under is belt, including stints at BBC Radio and BBC World Service. As for international experience, Parsons was part of two start-up news network teams, EBC in Switzerland and Telecampione in Italy. His enthusiasm for the job is clear: “When the chance to take part in the launch of Aljazeera International came along, it was something I leapt at,” he says. “For a television journalist it must be the best job going right now — a blank sheet of paper, a chance to make a difference. It’s hard to ask for more from a professional standpoint.”||**||

Add a Comment

Your display name This field is mandatory

Your e-mail address This field is mandatory (Your e-mail address won't be published)

Security code