Al Jazeera America Aims to Move from Startup to America’s ‘Best News Division’

By Jordan Chariton 

Al Jazeera America went on the air three months ago today. While the viewership has been tepid so far, the network is ramping up for growth, adding new shows and new staff.

TVNewser visited the channel’s midtown Manhattan studio last week for a wide ranging interview with network president Kate O’Brian who spoke about the preconceived notions of Al Jazeera, whether the ratings are a concern, and her own move from an entrenched broadcast network to a 24-hour news startup: “I’m riding the wild bronco, and enjoying every second of it.”

TVNewser: How are you trying to differentiate AJAM from other networks?

O’Brian: We’re not putting pundits on, we’re putting experts on when needed. And that’s a really important distinction because we don’t want to hear people just discussing at whatever decibel level their opinions on whatever is going on. We want to hear experts [when we have someone other than our reporter reporting a story] going deeply into the reasons something is the way it is.

TVNewser: What have been your major obstacles?

O’Brian:  We’re a startup. Some things have been challenges but we are working through, like getting on Time Warner (Cable), getting more distribution. There’s no question that we have to get our brand out there, and we have to get people to tune in. What we’ve found is, when people tune in and look at us, their preconceived notions of what we are and what we do are just exploded.

TVNewser: What are your metrics to see if people are moving away from preconceived notions of Al Jazeera?

O’Brian: It’s quite stunning to me how many things I’ve read that have said, ‘wow this is not what I thought, and this is so much better than what I thought.’ I was on the bus the other day, and it was a crazy, busy day and lots of people squished together, and of course you wind up talking to the person you’re squished against. When I said I was at Al Jazeera America, just unsolicited, this woman said, ‘oh my God I thought you were one thing, but now, you’re the only news channel I watch.’ I just get more and more stories like that from everywhere.

TVNewser: What are the results you’re looking at that have led to this big expansion?

O’Brian:  The ratings are the ratings. We are new, we are just starting, our ratings will come as people are watching. And frankly getting more cable houses will cause more people to watch. The combination of what we’re hearing and the fact that we’ll be distributed in more places makes it necessary for us to grow. We will never be content with stasis. We are moving ahead. We have great goals to be the best, number one news division in the U.S., and I’m completely confident that we’re going to get there.

TVNewser:  Your CEO said ratings are critical, but what’s more critical is how we impact Main Street. What does he mean by that?

O’Brian:  I think what we’re looking at is to have the viewing public understand that we are the news division that is telling their stories. And we’re not just telling the stories out of Washington, or out of New York, or even Los Angeles. We’re telling the stories across the U.S. We’re telling the stories of Main Street. What we’re finding is that the people from those places are noticing. People are noticing that we’re covering the things that nobody else is covering.

TVNewser: During the Syria intervention story, Pew Research Center did a study that found AJAM focused more than others on the humanitarian crisis, but also fell into the meme about whether the U.S. should get involved. Is your general philosophy to not do what the other networks are doing, or is it case by case?

O’Brian: We look at every story as a unique story. We try to not look at it as ‘what’s everyone else doing and let’s either try to do what they’re doing or not do what they’re doing.’ We really look at it from our collective gut. The Pew study was terrific in that it measured us against some organizations that have been around for a very long time and we came up matching and in some cases exceeding. I will point out that we had been on the air two weeks when that Pew study was done.

TVNewser: What’s been your feeling on the big name talent you’ve brought to AJAM?

O’Brian: I can’t tell you how happy an environment this is. People are really happy to be working here. I think news people in general are not happy…tend to be cynical. This environment really is a gift. It’s a very different feel of the newsroom here and for the various shows. And that certainly applies to the on-air talent.

TVNewser: TVNewser and Mediabistro are big in the industry for helping people find media jobs. What generally is AJAM looking for in candidates, from top to bottom level positions?

O’Brian: We want people who are great journalists, understand what great stories are, are not content to take what is handed to them, are willing to work every angle and work really hard, who understand the mission, and how to go about those kinds of stories, in the U.S. and frankly overseas. Everybody who walks in the door has to understand that.

TVNewser: For you personally, what’s been the experience coming from an established network, ABC News, to running a news startup?

O’Brian: I’m riding the wild bronco, and enjoying every second of it. It’s exciting, it’s overwhelming, but I’ve never been happier. It’s so much fun to do this type of news. I’m a pretty happy camper.