Al Jazeera America’s two big challenges

The first frames of Al Jazeera America's broadcast. (YouTube)

The first frames of al-Jazeera America's broadcast. (YouTube)

New York Times media reporter Brian Stelter uploaded this video showing the final minute of Current TV and the first five minutes of Al Jazeera America, which began broadcasting at 3 p.m. Eastern time on Tuesday:

It's mostly a promotional video, which hits repeatedly on two main themes: a heavy subtext of Americanness (it refers to the United States as "home") and the not-so-subtle implication that other American TV news networks lack seriousness.

Al Jazeera, which is owned by the royal family that rules the oil-rich Persian Gulf nation Qatar, seems to be addressing what it sees as its greatest weakness in the U.S. media market, its foreignness, as well as its greatest strength, its commitment to serious coverage. For the former, it plays up domestic coverage, which is pretty new for the Al Jazeera network. For the latter, it leans on its reputation for foreign coverage, as well as a supporting quote from then-Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who once said, "It is really effective, and in fact viewership of Al Jazeera is going up in the United States because it's real news."

Those are both reasons that Al Jazeera America's launch is significant for this blog, which covers foreign news. And they also get to the network's two big challenges, both of which also touch on WorldViews turf:

1. The ownership issue

Foreign, state-owned news agencies not named BBC have had a very tough time expanding into the U.S. media market. That's partly because it's highly competitive and produces networks that are successful at attracting viewers. This is why you can watch CNN in Indonesia but find none of Indonesia's commercial networks available for viewing in the United States. But it's also because the foreign networks that do expand into the U.S. market, such as Moscow-financed Russian network RT, tend to be widely perceived as soft power instruments rather than news agencies, and few people want to spend their evening taking in news they believe is meant to serve foreign national interests.

Al Jazeera is certainly a soft power instrument as well, but its English-language station has aimed to project Qatari influence simply by being really good rather than by pushing an agenda. And it's largely won over foreign news nerds like me who were eager to seek out high-quality international coverage. But Al Jazeera America will have to convince domestic U.S. news consumers to trust their brand despite the fact that it's owned by an absolute monarchy in a part of the world that many Americans view negatively. That will likely be, fairly or unfairly, a high burden of proof that could take a long time to overcome. And, also fairly or unfairly, any missteps that confirm peoples' biases about the Al Jazeera brand are going to be very difficult for the network to overcome.

For much of the English-speaking foreign news audience, Al Jazeera English has succeeded in making its primary identity its quality, rather than its ownership. That's why even Bush-era Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld went on for an interview. But it's starting all over now that it wants to make that same sell to the pool of American viewers interested primarily in domestic news, which is larger but perhaps also less apt to overlook foreign ownership. And that brings us to:

2. The domestic/foreign emphasis question

Al Jazeera English's expansion in the mid- and late-2000s was premised on the idea that viewers wanted more high-quality international news coverage than they were getting. And the fact that Al Jazeera America is launching at all is a testament to its success.

But it's not clear if Al Jazeera America hopes to deepen that success by positioning itself as the news network with serious, high-quality, expensive foreign news coverage, or if it's hoping to strike out into new territory altogether with serious, high-quality, expensive domestic news coverage. Obviously I believe that the former is a good way to go because it's what I do all day myself, and Al Jazeera America has hired an awful lot of foreign news pros from Al Jazeera English. But so far the network appears bent on the latter, on a strategy of bringing its AJE model to domestic U.S. news, which is higher-risk and higher-reward. That market is more crowded.

A coverage strategy that emphasizes domestic news also risks losing Al Jazeera's "base" of U.S. viewers who already know and like the network for its foreign rather than domestic coverage but who might not be able to view Al Jazeera English now because its Web stream was taken offline to comply with legal requirements. If people like me who want Al Jazeera's foreign news coverage can't see it on Al Jazeera English anymore, and can't see it as frequently on Al Jazeera America because they're not emphasizing it to the same degree, then Al Jazeera will have sacrificed a big chunk of its preexisting American audience on its first day of broadcasting here.

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