Al Jazeera America (AJAM) launches on Tuesday with both the boundless enthusiasm of the hard-core news hounds who are driving its slick, expensive content, and a branding problem as big as the Persian Gulf.
Thus far, even endemics are balking at the startup. One client, a financial services company that exclusively buys news, begged off a chance to buy time on AJAM even though it is “a perfect fit” for the network, according to a TV buyer who spoke on condition of anonymity.
“We totally tried to talk our client into doing it, but they are very conservative,” the buyer said. Until it’s clear that there’s no chance of bad press, they won’t budge. “It’s going to be a big problem for a lot of people.”
It may be fighting an uphill battle with advertisers afraid of being associated with an Arabic name (which simply means “The Peninsula,” by the way), but among the literati, Al Jazeera has a sterling reputation as the network that knows the Middle East upside down and sideways. Ninety percent of Americans who’ve watched Al Jazeera liked it, said interim CEO Ehab Al Shihabi; that said, 75 percent of people who hadn’t tuned in had a negative opinion of the channel. Part of that is simply due to trolling from conservative news orgs, but Al Shihabi said his team had launched a major charm offensive in an effort to combat misperceptions. “We have engaged in a lot of dialogue [about] our mission, vision and journalistic identity,” he told Adweek. “We have met a lot of key influential leaders … and with most of the agencies.”
Buyers aren’t arguing—the pitch is great. “When they showed us all their offices around the world, it was clear that among other global news organizations, no one can beat them,” the buyer said. Clients are a different story. “We want to use them, but the client wouldn’t go until they could prove that people will take them seriously.”
Having secured carriage on DirecTV, Comcast, Dish, Verizon FiOS and AT&T’s U-Verse, AJAM will launch on Aug. 20 in 48 million homes.
AJAM won’t exactly sink beneath the waves if it isn’t an immediate hit with advertisers. The startup was established by royal edict—the oil-rich ruling family of Qatar funds it with grants—and its business model suggests AJAM wants to be a haven for talented reporters that operates out of a sense of noblesse oblige, one without much regard for carving out ad inventory. (AJAM will only slot six minutes of commercial time per hour.)
For news pros, AJAM presents an opportunity to dig deep on substantive news stories, and that’s vital to recent hire David Shuster. The veteran anchor characterized AJAM as an outlet that trades in “just really good, well-made television pieces.” Shuster, in fact, was on the cusp of changing careers when he was approached by the network.
For Shuster, who was with Current TV before the network was sold to the Qatari news org for $500 million, AJAM represents another chance to get it right.
“I felt like I’d had my run in journalism,” Shuster said. “And then I saw that Al Jazeera wanted to go back and do long, taped pieces and use my experience as an anchor to present it. And it was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up.”