Al Jazeera goes global

Nigel Parsons is preparing to take Qatar’s most famous brand on to the world stage. Richard Abbott hears how he plans to turn Al Jazeera International into a world beater

  • E-Mail
By  Richard Abbott Published  January 29, 2006

Al Jazeera goes global|~|nigelparsons200.jpg|~|Nigel Parsons, managing director, Al Jazeera International|~|Less than 10 years after its birth, Al Jazeera is about to go global. This spring, the Qatar-based network will go live into millions of homes across the world. It is taking on international beasts like the BBC and CNN with its first English language offering — Al Jazeera International. The network has built an admirable reputation for its reporting during turbulent political times. But recently it was the subject of a leaked memo from Downing Street, reportedly claiming that George Bush wanted to bomb the network’s Doha headquarters. So can Nigel Parsons, managing director of Al Jazeera International, make the channel a success in the West, where it is regarded with hostility? “It depends where you are in the world. The reaction is extremely positive or extremely negative,” he says. “When I travel around here it is very positive; in Europe it is very positive amongst the media itself but within the general public there is a fair amount of scepticism. “The United States is the country where the perception is most negative, based on a lot of mis-information within the marketplace and a lot of people have formed their opinions from third parties.” But Parsons is not dwelling too much on the impact in the US. “I read a lot of stuff saying that we cannot succeed unless we crack the American market. I don’t think that’s true, it’s just another country. “We will have an audience in the United States. The biggest number of visitors to our website come from the United States which suggests they can’t all be coming from the Pentagon. This would suggest some kind of hunger.” Al Jazeera does not struggle for brand awareness. It is among the five most influential brands in the world, according to global branding consultancy Interbrand. Parsons joined the company as managing director in August 2004 and set about recruiting a team that already numbers Sky News presenter David Foster and media legend Sir David Frost. A former journalist himself, Parsons has experience with the BBC and has managed news start-ups in Switzerland and Italy. Basing an international news channel in Doha may not be everyone’s first choice, but Parsons is unconcerned. “I think it’s a tremendous advantage because we are not saddled with a domestic agenda and we are very centrally located,” he says. “Our content will stand out because of where we are broadcasting from. We are the first global broadcaster to be coming out of the Middle East. “We are a tiny country. It would be inconceivable to push a Qatari agenda on the world whereas if you are coming out of a big powerful industrial country you will carry its agenda. It is inevitable. “BBC World carries a lot of UK-oriented stories. They ran a long story about Gordon Brown talking about a national day for the UK. Quite frankly that is not an international story.” But with such a rich heritage of reporting on Middle East issues over its ten-year life, Parsons expects to utilise the strength of the local Al Jazeera team to set the agenda for news coverage of the region. “The Middle East will be an important focal area for us and it happens to be the world’s news hot spot. We would expect to have the best content and the best coverage because of our sister channel,” he says. “I would like to emulate the success of Al Jazeera in the Middle East. They have been the trailblazer. There are now strong competitors like Al Arabiya. Abu Dhabi was very good during the Iraqi invasion but then they scaled back their news programming.” Alongside Doha, the channel will have three other broadcasting centres — Kuala Lumpur, London and Washington DC. “It is important that on major world events we convey an Arabic perspective,” says Parsons. “But we do want different perspectives from different regions. It is a mix of global and regional. A lot of our programming will be commissioned. We will be working with independent producers.” The distribution target is 40 million homes worldwide, but Parsons admits that this is work in progress. “On day one we will definitely have a global signal and the tricky bit is signing up the cable and direct-to-home cable satellite operators,” he says. “We expect to achieve and surpass the target that was set for the distribution director, which was about 40 million homes worldwide.” Parsons expects the channel to break even at between three to five years. “We don’t expect to have a huge amount of revenue on day one. People don’t like to advertise on things they haven’t seen,” he says. “News channels are not necessarily the best revenue earners. They are often loss leaders. We are keen to generate revenue but the focus on day one is getting the eyeballs and then hoping the advertisers will follow those eyeballs.” He is reluctant to talk about how Al Jazeera International will appear on screen, because other channels are sure to be watching its every move as it builds up to launch. However, he admits that the channel will break with TV news convention. “I expect there will be some relaunch activities from our competititors. If we are going to look the same there is no point to it. We have to be different and we want to be a market leader, not a market follower,” he says. Parsons hints that his channel may look at a more analytical approach than its rivals, which he argues focus too much on the short-term story. “There is this habit where they come, they shoot, they go,” he says. “There is an assumption that audiences know as much as the journalists — they don’t.” As launch day approaches, there will be a “limited” marketing campaign for public awareness — no big budget global campaign. “The best marketing is always word of mouth,” says Parsons. Where does he want the channel to be at the end of 2006? “On air,” he jokes. “I haven’t thought that far ahead. There is a lot of expectation so we want to produce as good a product as possible. Hopefully we will be looking at new programme strands, taking a look at the medium to long-term in terms of strategy.” If the next ten years of Al Jazeera are anything like as eventful as the first decade, Parsons will be in for a thrilling ride.||**||

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