Al Jazeera America Finds a Leader in ABC News Vet

Kate O’Brian joins well-funded startup channel

With a little less than a month to go before its launch, Al Jazeera America has selected ABC News veteran Kate O’Brian to serve as its president.

In her new role, O’Brian will have oversight of all editorial strategy and day-to-day operations at the startup news channel. She will be based at Al Jazeera America’s New York headquarters on East 42nd St.

“Al Jazeera America will demonstrate that quality journalism is alive and well in the United States,” O’Brian said, by way of announcing her move. “Working alongside the talented journalists at ABC News has prepared me to take this step, and I am deeply grateful for 30 years at that outstanding organization.”

While speculation as to who would be tapped to run the startup ran wild this spring, O’Brian’s name did not appear on any media handicapper’s short list. (Much of the early divination amounted to little more than guesswork.) 

A fixture at ABC News for the last 30 years, O’Brian in 2007 was named svp of the division. In that role, O’Brian oversaw ABC’s global newsgathering operations, including the Washington Bureau, the affiliate service ABC NewsOne and ABC News Radio.

Over the course of her career, O’Brian has won a number of awards for excellence in journalism, including the Alfred I. duPont Award for her work on This Week With David Brinkley; an Emmy Award for ABC 2000, the news organization’s coverage of the millennium; and a second duPont and a Peabody Award for coverage of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

In a note to staffers, ABC News president Ben Sherwood thanked O’Brian for her long service to the network. “On a personal level, I’m deeply grateful to her for helping steer the division through the complex transitions of the last several years,” Sherwood said. “And I will miss the sound of her voice, urgent and measured, calling in the middle of the night when news is breaking somewhere around the world. In moments of crisis and every day, two principles always guided her: the safety of our people and the excellence of our work.”

Sherwood added that David Reiter (vp and managing editor, newsgathering) and Jon Williams (managing editor for international news) would continue to oversee ABC News’ domestic and foreign coverage. 

Al Jazeera America on Monday also named three other newsroom higher-ups, all of whom are veterans of broadcast and cable networks. CNN veteran David Doss will come aboard as svp of news programming, CBS News’ Marcy McGinnis was named svp of news gathering, and former CNN and MSNBC standout Shannon High-Bassalik was appointed svp, documentaries and programs.

Earlier this month, longtime CNN anchor Soledad O’Brien joined Al Jazeera America as a special correspondent.

The network is expected to launch on Aug. 20. While the flagship Al Jazeera network has had little luck signing carriage deals (the channel is currently available in New York; Washington, D.C.; Bristol, R.I.; Toledo, Ohio; and Burlington, Vt.), its owners effectively bought themselves an opening with the $500 million acquisition of Al Gore’s Current TV.

At launch, Al Jazeera America will inherit the channel space once occupied by Current TV. It will not be available to Time Warner Cable subscribers, as the operator dropped Current immediately after the acquisition was announced.

Per SNL Kagan, Current’s sub fee is just 12 cents per customer per month, less than half the industry average. But because low-rated networks are forever in danger of being dumped by impatient operators, it’s likely that AJA will jettison its carriage fee altogether.

“We think Al Jazeera may have to drop the license fee … to zero in order to gain widespread carriage in the U.S.,” said SNL Kagan analyst Derek Baine. “Such a move would certainly imperil its economic model, which relies on license fees for 80 percent of the network's revenue—but it may be the only way to gain a solid foothold in the U.S. market.”

Of course, money’s not exactly an issue. Al Jazeera and the American spinoff channel are funded by the emir of Qatar, who boasts an estimated net worth of $2.5 billion.


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