News technology

Al Jazeera's director of global distribution, Phil Lawrie, tells George Bevir how the latest internet and mobile technology has helped the broadcaster to reach more viewers around the world

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News technology Phil Lawrie says content providers must embrace new technology.
By  George Bevir Published  August 13, 2009 Communications Middle East & Africa Logo

Qatar-based broadcaster Al Jazeera English last month announced its first major US TV deal, in a significant victory against US-based opponents of the channel who have branded it "terrorist TV". Al Jazeera has always rejected critics' claims that the channel acts as a mouthpiece for terrorist organisations, but in spite of the denials, the anti Al Jazeera rhetoric has proved to be a significant obstacle to the broadcaster's attempts to expand its reach into North America.

Before last month's deal with a Washington DC-based broadcaster, Al Jazeera's main point of access to the homes of Americans was the internet. In November 2006 Al Jazeera established the first ever news channel on video sharing website YouTube and it is now the most watched news channel on the website, with 4.2 million views and 59,400 subscribers. And according to Al Jazeera, 60-70% of its YouTube viewers come from the US.  Where web 2.0 technologies helped Al Jazeera find an alternative method of reaching an otherwise elusive audience, the latest internet phenomenon, micro blogging service Twitter, is now helping the broadcaster to reach another untapped market.

With Twitter users able to broadcast their own 140 character messages, and subscribe to other users' updates, it not only serves as an outlet for news organsiations like Al Jazeera, but also boosts their newsgathering capabilities.

 "I think the Gaza conflict did actually bring Twitter into a new light because although we were the only news broadcaster to have journalists on the inside [of Gaza] during the conflict, there was a lot going on, it was densely populated and movement during a hot war is not that easy," says Phil Lawrie, Al Jazeera's director of global distribution.

The Al Jazeera website featured a Twitter feed of updates sent by Al Jazeera correspondents, and its own channels on Twitter also sent updates to its followers. It is now used by individual shows on Al Jazeera to update viewers with news and information about the programmes. There are currently 1600 followers of its Arabic language updates, and just under 11,000 followers of its English updates.

"For many years it has been realised that new media and disruptive technologies fragment your audience, and we just need to make sure that we are in all of those spaces to make sure that we reach our audience," Lawrie says.

On demand

Al Jazeera's SMS and MMS updates, for breaking news, business updates, sport and economics stories were first offered in Arabic in 2003 when Al Jazeera Mobile as a sub brand was launched, before the launch of the English version of the channel.  Compared to the markets in North America or Europe, SMS alerts still have a place in the market in the Middle East and North Africa, according to Lawrie, who says that "a large proportion of Al Jazeera's hundreds of thousands of paying subscribers consume Al Jazeera via SMS alerts". But MMS alerts that contain a visual element with the text are not so widely consumed, he concedes.

Where SMS alerts can be sent directly to consumers by Al Jazeera, its mobile video on demand (VOD) services are mainly disseminated by operators or aggregators on behalf of the channel. Lawrie says that mobile TV and mobile VOD have helped Al Jazeera reach out "far beyond the Middle East and Africa, into Europe and Asia". A live stream of Al Jazeera is offered by 29 operators in the Middle East, while the VOD service, which offers bespoke two to three minute round-ups, was launched earlier this year.

"We're still talking to a lot of operators, not only in the Middle East, but also beyond the MENA territories," Lawrie says. "We created it with mobile and internet TV in mind, and a lot of initial deployments have been through websites, either our own or third party sites  such as UK newspaper The Independent, News24 in South Africa and we are looking at partnering with a leading newspaper in India and one of the leading news sites in the USA."

The closest  Lawrie will get to revealing the size of Al Jazeera's mobile services market is to say that the number of subscribers who pay for Al Jazeera's mobile TV services, "runs into the hundreds of thousands - and it's not just edging six figures.

"From a commercial perspective, the thing that often lets mobile down, from the content providers' perspective, is that there is no critical mass. IPTV is more interesting to content providers because it has more critical mass in terms of uptake and use," he says. "Mobile TV has already been a bit of a disappointment to a content provider, but despite all of that, we have achieved critical mass in the mobile space.  That would stand as a good comparison to some of the other broadcasters out there."

The amount of revenue generated by mobile TV has become more significant for Al Jazeera, and it would be missed if it was lost, Lawrie says. But he says that even though the figures are growing slowly, revenue should not be the primary reason for broadcasters to pay attention to mobile TV. Instead, it is about reaching "that ever-fragmenting audience, and making sure content is tailored to ever fragmenting devices and technologies".

Although the aim is to reach a wider audience, Lawrie points out that no deals are made without a share of the revenue. "Without divulging the exact commercial details, when we enter into a revenue share we would be seeking parity," he explains. "Al Jazeera  is undoubtedly the most compelling media brand in the Middle East and north Africa, so perhaps we can be a little bit more bullish when we are talking to operators."

History lesson

Lawrie used to work for US-based broadcaster CNN where he helped to strike the first deal with an Austrian operator, and he says that in the past content providers would insist on minimum guarantees when they entered into deals with operators.

"I think it's fair to say we made life fairly painful for operators by taking that stance...when you launch a mobile TV service,  it's sluggish going for the operator to generate subscribers. If the content providers all hold out for minimum guarantees,  it makes the business plan tight on margin and a lot of our partners were hurting, particularly at the end of year one, when they would say it's just impossible to break even if [content providers] hold out for these MGs."

 Al Jazeera has a "much more pragmatic approach" in terms of demanding upfront minimum guarantees, which Lawrie says are not the right way to strike a deal. Instead, content providers have to be a bit more realistic in terms of partnering.

"As a content provider you have to be prepared to give the operator the chance to grow nascent TV platforms, so we haven't held out for big MGs, we have grown with them. We expect parity when it comes to share of income from these platforms because we add a lot of value as the Al Jazeera brand. But we won't nail them to the ground on an MG and then see them bleed to death, because we have to grow."

The cost of mobile data in the Middle East and Africa is often cited as an inhibitor to growth of data hungry services like mobile TV and VOD. "It just staggers me; because operators should be learning from behaviour and consumption in markets which are more mature in terms of video and data rich content. Europe, back in 2003, went through all those mistakes, and were charging by the megabit or second, and people got loads of bill shock.

"When you switch to flat fee tariffs, suddenly the take-up soars. We are gradually seeing that happen in the Middle East and North Africa, but it's still not the case universally. Flat fee is the main request I would make. A lot of [operators] that haven't got them are planning them."

iPhone application

Last month Al Jazeera launched an application for Apple's iPhone that will give users around the world access to its English language news channel while on the move.

"Deployments such as this, on emerging technologies, are all about garnering real estate and making sure a fragmenting audience can still find us on whatever device they are using," Phil Lawrie says.

"Al Jazeera English is already firmly established as one of the most viewed news channels on YouTube and now Al Jazeera English Live is keeping the station at the fore of the digital revolution," Lawrie adds.

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